Pregnant mother Marlo is barely hanging on to her energy and sanity as she prepares to deliver her third child. Once the baby arrives she’s so depleted that she finally agrees to her brother’s offer to hire a night nurse – a generous young woman named Tully who changes Marlo’s outlook on life with her vibrancy.
Marlo (Charlize Theron) is a woman drowning in domesticity. Her daily life revolves around her two young children, Sarah (Lia Frankland) and Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), with another baby shortly on the way. (Though she’s technically not a stay-at-home mother, we never see the work portion of her life as she’s on maternity leave from her corporate HR job.) Complicating the late stages of her pregnancy are her behaviorally-challenged son and barely-there husband, Drew (Ron Livingston).
Marlo does her best, schlepping the kids to and from school, getting dinner on the table (even if it is frozen pizza), and being a mate to Drew (their low-pressure partnership includes zero sex, which seems to bother neither one of them), but it’s clear she’s simply going through the motions. A dinner with her brother and sister-in-law (Mark Duplass as Craig and Elaine Tan as Elyse) gives Marlo a glimpse of another reality, with their well-behaved kids under the tutelage of their nanny, Shasta (Stormy Ent). After the meal, Craig pulls Marlo aside to chat in his swanky Tiki bar to offer his sister the ultimate gift – a night nanny to aid in the transition of adding a third baby to her family. Marlo is initially hesitant, not seeing the validity in having someone else care for her child. But sleep deprivation soon makes the choice for her – Marlo needs backup. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a manic-pixie dream girl whose intuitive help just may save Marlo’s life. Will Tully provide a band-aid for all that’s amiss in Marlo’s world, or will this spiritly woman help herald a permanent change for Marlo and her family?
No big deal, I’m just here to save your life.
The plot is a compelling meditation on what it means to be a mother in this modern world. Charlize Theron does a stunning job of imbuing Marlo with a sense of self that the audience can see slip away with each addition to her family. She knows she should be on top of her game as a “perfect” mother, but she’s slowly strangled by the expectations of everything, from bringing homemade cupcakes to school, to disciplining her children, to making sure dinner is on the table as her husband breezes home from work.
Her physical body also shows the strain of a life slipping away. Marlo is glassy eyed, barely there, and nearly hopeless, as if her limbs are operating out of sheer duty without her brain even in awareness that she’s ambulatory. The depression is painfully palpable. Charlize’s much-noted 50-lb. weight gain serves the role well. Far from a stunt, it adds believability to an already note for note perfect performance of a woman who has no idea what has happened to her path. (The film has been released early in the year, but let’s hope Theron is in the conversation when Oscar chatter picks back up.)
One can’t approach Tully without talking about the class/caste system in America. While Marlo and Drew are solidly middle class, they still struggle with finances. The disparity between their disheveled make-due existence is highlighted by the visit to Craig and Elyse’s sleek home. Wealthy Craig has a flat black Range Rover, “just like Justin Bieber’s.” Craig and Elyse also have three kids, but show none of the strain that Marlo drags with her every day. They offer a relaxed meal in their picture-perfect dining room as their live-in nanny squires away the children to another part of the house. The home is spacious; the vibe relaxed. The food looks like it’s been prepared by a Michelin-starred chef. Craig is energetic and jovial. Elyse is gorgeous, fit, and refreshed. Both families are in similar circumstances with five people to account for, but what makes all the rest possible for Craig and Elyse is money.
Sometimes I’m sad my biological clock never turned on. Other times I’m like, “Nope! I’m all good.”
Would Marlo be in danger of almost swirling down the drain if she had the help on a regular basis that Craig and Elyse can afford? My guess is probably not. Depression can strike anyone, no matter what the finances are, and it’s a very serious disease. I’m not here to minimize that. The old adage is surely true – money can‘t buy happiness. But so is the modern qualifier – it may not buy happiness, but it sure as hell can make the trip a fuck of a lot more comfortable! (Or at least that’s what I’ve heard.)
I read several reviews that posited Craig as a douchebag. I saw it as the opposite – his offer was made in kindness, in accordance with his reality. Yes, it was a gift of sheer privilege. But it was given with the hope that the lively sister he once knew would return. Craig says at one point, “I just want my sister back. It’s like somebody snuffed out a match.” That’s insightful – and the fact that he was trying to offer a life raft was touching. What was disappointing is that Duplass’s character is used more as a plot device – he offers the nanny; Tully appears, and Craig subsequently disappears. It felt like a double waste – both in casting, as Duplass always adds so much to the screen, and in story, as it would’ve been great to explore the sibling bond and the emotional support it can offer.
Though Charlize is the star, the presence of Diablo Cody is palpable. (Diablo burst on the film scene with the whip smart – though almost too twee for its little gym shorts – standout, Juno, and her work has made an indelible impact. This is her third collaboration with director Jason Reitman, and second with Theron.) I couldn’t look away from Theron, but I never once forgot that it was Cody’s words she was speaking. That is not necessarily a bad thing – as a writer it’s a thrill to see someone who would normally be relegated to the background exalted to a status almost equal to the star. I enjoy Diablo’s work – I’m glad she has a voice in this industry, and I think it’s an important one. That said, I would like to see her update her bag of tricks. The snappy dialogue you would expect is here, and there are some great one-liners. (When Marlo asks Elyse what her daughter’s skill is for a talent contest, Elyse answers, “Pilates,” without a trace of irony and it is hilarious.) But other exchanges are a bit too pat, like when Marlo tells Tully, “Girls don’t heal. If you look closely, we’re covered in concealer.” No one really talks like that, and it’s a giant record scratch in an otherwise flawless conversation.
You guys keep bringing it, and I’ll keep showing up!
The other giant glitch in Cody’s clever gift bag is a difficult one – it’s a plot point that I cannot reveal, as it will ruin the viewing experience. I really struggled with this decision. Normally I put a “Review Contains Spoilers” note at the top of the post and go about my recap. But in my research I never once ran across the twist. I was grateful I didn’t know more going in, and I decided I don’t want to be the one to put it out there. (There are holes in the plot I’d like to discuss, but I will keep my mouth shut for once.) I will say I think Diablo has the potential to be braver than the ending, and I wish she’d found the strength to let the film sit alone for what it could’ve been – a simple slice of the joy and despair of everyday life.
I’m not sure why Tully is being sold as a comedy when it appears to be a study in debilitating depression. That said, Theron’s stunning performance will make sure you don’t look away and you’ll most likely be left talking for days about what it all means. While the final moments cheapen the film, the overall experience is still worth a watch.
Tully (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Marlo stares helplessly off into the distance.
Take a Drink: every time Marlo is awoken from slumber to feed her newborn.
Take a Drink: every time Drew plays Call of Duty in bed.
Take a Drink: every time Tully bounds into the house and helps herself to food.
Do a Shot: for Marlo’s epic meltdown in the principal’s office.
No extra scenes, but there is a well-selected soundtrack that’s worth sitting around for as the theater clears out.