Following a critical slump, director Jason Reitman has reunited with his best collaborator to make Tully. I have a lot of great things to say about Reitman’s Up in the Air as well, but with Juno, Young Adult and this latest effort, he and Diablo Cody really do make a great team. Charlize Theron is back in the fold as well, in a role that clearly shares a lot of commonalities with Young Adult’s Mavis Gary. Seeing Tully as a spiritual successor to that film, it’s clear this trio know what they want to put forward when it comes to a specific type of character. For Tully, that means putting on display a mother living a decidedly average life where conflicting emotions run up against societal norms in an attempt hold a manageable status quo together.
Here’s a film that clearly came together in writing based on experience. Cody, Reitman, Theron and most of the supporting actors are all parents. It may not be autobiographical, but the idea of writing about motherhood certainly fits at this point. Cody and Reitman have dealt with the concept of being thrust out of adolescence and challenged audiences with a callous character hell-bent on recapturing her glory years. The natural next step is putting full adulthood on display. What it is to be the mom in a family that does their best with what they have. Of course, there would be no film without a challenge, which is where Tully comes into play.
About a third of the way into the film, we are introduced to Mackenzie Davis’ Tully, a free-spirited night nanny that would fit right alongside characters Theron would once play in films like Sweet November. A lesser film would find Davis in the position of a clichéd problem solver for overworked parents or worse, the force of danger bent on tearing the family apart. Tully does not pivot towards these tropes, even if she has arrived at a time when Theron’s Marlo is being pushed hard, following the birth of her third child. In fact, even with Tully’s insistence on spouting lines of dialogue that gives her the air of a spiritual guide for Marlo, in addition to being a nocturnal caretaker, there’s enough in the writing and direction to keep the viewer holding Tully at arm’s length.
It’s not about being wary of Tully but instead embracing Marlo as a character. The amount of time spent with her, before Tully arrives, gives the audience all they need to believe in her and hope things will be alright. Her children test her patience in a way that’s natural, but the film never has anyone thinking a school is in the right when they start describing one of her children as, “quirky.” I may not be a parent (which could limit some of my thoughts on specific developments in the story), but I can be empathetic to a scenario where doing everything right doesn’t necessarily mean the results comfortably fit in with the rest of the world.
Even with the eventual addition of Tully, this is another example of a film that shows off how comfortable Reitman and Cody are with each other. The flack Cody’s (Oscar-winning) script for Juno received, based on stylized dialogue choices, has been adequately captured and appropriated by Reitman, much like it had been with Young Adult, thanks to these being films that reflect adults. At the same time, Reitman’s sense of specificity has been incorporated into Cody’s script for Tully, making sure to highlight the seemingly mundane details of events that generally involve a grander sense of staging.
With the lack of much circumstance surrounding the birth that occurs early on in the film or in the arguments that realistically do not happen, because these parents just wouldn’t have the energy for them, we get a great human comedy and character study to hold our focus. Theron is as good here as she was in Young Adult, with the benefit of time and experience making for an informed character that’s certainly easier to be around than the former. Davis has the odd but innocent energy needed to keep Marlo curious, but not against the sort of help Tully has seemingly come prepared to give out.
For a film so focused on Marlo and the nature of motherhood, it is important to point out what an excellent choice Ron Livingston is as Drew, her husband. Livingston’s the kind of relaxed acting presence that can be molded to be either wholly naïve or incredibly smug, but likable nonetheless. Here, he’s a bit of a balance between the two, but never in a way that has the film pushing the audience to be against him. He’s a good father and husband who needs a bit more awareness. The stresses of family life when it comes to jobs and schedules are not suddenly solved thanks to the rediscovery of joy, as this is not that film. Instead, Tully works as a look at why things can be complicated and what can be done to alleviate some of the pressure.
If Tully sounds too uneventful, just know there’s a direction the film takes to round out the narrative, but the enjoyment mostly comes from being in the world of these characters for a relatively brisk 90 minutes. The performances are strong, the script is whip-smart, and there are enough relatable comedic moments to balance up against the drama being presented. It’s a fine film and further proof that Reitman and Cody make for terrific filmmaking companions.