She’s just so tired. Marlo, the reluctant heroine of Tully, is a wife and mother of two, with a third child just days away from being born. Certain adjectives come to mind to describe her—patient, caustic, diplomatic—but the word that’s most easily applied is tired. Actually, maybe exhausted would be more accurate—stretched to her breaking point, just about ready to snap. Marlo is played by Charlize Theron, making her second film with Up in the Air director Jason Reitman. Their first effort, Young Adult, was about a train wreck stubbornly resisting maturity. In Tully, Theron once again plays a woman who feels like she could shatter. We watch her expectantly, fearing what will happen if this teetering, struggling character finally falls down.
Written by Diablo Cody, who previously collaborated with Reitman on Juno and Young Adult, Tully gives us a marriage and a family that’s barely holding on. Marlo’s husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is a decent guy but a little beaten-down—it’s clear neither of them really wanted a third child but, yet, here we are. Their other two kids are hardly perfect angels—their young son seems to have emotional issues that no doctor has been able to completely pinpoint—and financially, Marlo and Drew aren’t sure they’ll be able to keep their heads afloat after Baby No. 3 arrives.
Marlo’s sense of drowning is only exacerbated by the relative ease of her brother Craig (Mark Duplass), who’s married and wealthy, able to afford a live-in nanny to care for his three kids. She resents Craig, but he offers her a gift that he hopes will help her situation: He’s hired for her a night nanny, who will spend the nocturnal hours keeping an eye on the new baby so that Marlo can get some much-needed sleep. Both Marlo and Drew are hesitant—if they accept, it’ll be another thing that smug Craig can hold over their heads—but in her delirium and fatigue, Marlo eventually relents.
That’s when the filmmakers introduce us to Tully (Mackenzie Davis), who’s younger, thinner and more of a free spirit than the saddled Marlo. Initially, Marlo’s a little dubious—and maybe a little envious of this person who’s so happy and has her whole life ahead of her—but slowly, Tully’s nurturing demeanor and sympathetic ear win her over. Tully doesn’t see herself as just a nanny: She wants to connect with Marlo and assist her in becoming unblocked so that she can feel more fulfilled.
Running just a little over 90 minutes, Tully has the beguiling slightness of a short story whose themes are always left just under the surface—hinted at but never fully revealed. Like Young Adult, Reitman’s new movie is ostensibly the portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but it’s often disarmingly tender and mysterious, the story taking its cue from the many hazy, intimate late-night conversations between Marlo and Tully as they begin to form a friendship.
Tully is crowded with female characters—Drew is an ineffectual, distant figure—and Reitman and Cody seem to be zeroing in on the way that women are shoved into roles as caretakers, left to confide to each other because the men in their lives can’t handle the emotional labor of a relationship. But once Tully starts to establish itself as one kind of wistful comedy-drama, the movie will gently shift, sending us down another path. A character early on makes a joke that hiring Tully could be akin to those cheesy Lifetime movies where the killer nanny destroys a seemingly idyllic home, and while Tully never gets that dark (or cheesy), it does connect to the vulnerability, shame, relief and anxiety that come from raising young children and entrusting them to a stranger. The more time that Marlo spends with Tully, the more she sees a version of herself that she used to be. The question for the older woman is, can she reclaim that earlier self? And should she even try?
Theron isn’t quite as volcanic as she was in Young Adult, where she defiantly pushed against staid notions about “likable” protagonists to deliver a raw, poignant performance. Marlo is simply too drained to be as vibrant, and so the Oscar-winning actress just lets that bone-deep weariness define the character. The way Theron slumps in chairs, staring mindlessly at bad reality television, speaks volumes about a woman who isn’t quite sure how she ended up this way. Didn’t she once have dreams? Didn’t she once have a pretty exciting life? Where did it go?
Davis has, perhaps, the trickier role. As written, Tully can sometimes seem too good to be true—so thoughtful, so caring, so full of positivity—which requires the Halt and Catch Fire star to ground this guardian angel with real-world immediacy. That balance doesn’t always work, but Davis lets a whiff of tension linger between the two women, the conflict between Tully’s bright youth and Marlo’s discontented middle age never entirely resolving.
Reitman keeps the proceedings engagingly shambling, mirroring the winging-it spirit of this frazzled mother. Almost offhandedly, Tully touches on everything from moribund sex lives to the miracle of running into a kind soul at just the right moment. And throughout, there is practically a hushed amazement at what moms endure—from their children, from their inattentive husbands, from inconsiderate outsiders who couldn’t possibly understand what they’re going through.
The movie takes some risks near the end that underline the story’s central themes while also undercutting them. But Tully is at its best when it’s simply moving intuitively from one negotiated respite to the next. This film is never as bleak in its depiction of the quiet hells of motherhood as 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, but its awkward, everyday rhythms may resonate more with child-rearing viewers—who probably won’t be able to concentrate on the movie at home because they’ll be too busy corralling their kids to have a moment to themselves.
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
Starring: Charlie Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston
Release Date: May 4, 2018
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.