Charlize Theron Endures the Perils of Life and Motherhood in ‘Tully’

Tully” finds the rough edges of life and stays there. Here is a film, darkly comic and perceptive, that knows life is never simple. This is ever so true when it comes to parenting. Director Jason Reitman reunites with Oscar-winning writer Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron to deliver some of their best work in years. Their previous collaboration, 2011’s “Young Adult,” starred Theron as a former small town prom queen, now successful fiction writer, who is nevertheless unhappy and returns home to seduce her high school ex. She is trapped with her ghosts. In “Tully” Theron again plays a character crashing against the rocks of life’s chosen paths, this time while dealing with the daunting experience of raising other human beings.

Marlo (Theron) is a housewife and English Literature grad 9 months pregnant with her third child. She once dreamed big, but settled for a homely existence. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is a nice enough guy, caring and low-tempered, but a bit oblivious to Marlo’s inner self. They already have their hands full with Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), their restless elementary school-aged son. He’s the kind of rowdy, overly-sensitive kid school officials deem “quirky” to mask harsher ideas. When Marlo gives birth to a baby girl, her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a “night nanny.” Essentially this would be someone who cares for the infant during the wee hours, so the parents can get some sleep. Marlo is reluctant at first but surrenders after exhaustion sets in. The nanny turns out to be a vivacious young woman named Tully (Mackenzie Davis), who brings a liberated air to the home. Endlessly curious, full of fresh knowledge, Tully reminds Marlo of her idealistic, carefree days. Their relationship becomes one of discovery and also reflections on roads not taken.

Satire and drama blend in “Tully” for a story that dismisses corniness for an honest portrait of living. It manages to be endearing because of how truthful it feels. The first half is a portrait of a family that is not dysfunctional, but dealing with very real hassles. Drew deals with work slowing down as Marlo juggles pregnancy with Jonah’s own, sometimes overwhelming tantrums. After the baby is born the film remains stripped of any timidity. The endurance marathon of late night breast-feeding, formula spills, diaper-changing, house cleaning, while still attending to the other kids, is captured with pure cinéma vérité. Cody’s script glows with dialogue that is funny but knowing. Marlo changes shirts and her daughter blurts, “what happened to your body mom?” There is cheerful satire when Marlo and Drew visit Craig and his fashionable, snooty wife Elyse (Elaine Tan), who tells Marlo she can relate to the hurdles of pregnancy, especially when it cut into her gym routine.  Marlo’s way of fighting back is through subtle sarcasm that can explode into blunt commentary. When Jonah’s school decides to expel him with bureaucratic language, Marlo snaps and unloads on a pitifully stale school official. If she throws a verbal knife it is only because life truly does become unfair, and feel good slogans don’t always help. There is a moment where Marlo leaves Jonah in the car and simply screams in the parking lot out of pure frustration. You don’t need to be a parent to relate to that.

One of the special techniques Reitman and Cody use is turning the main character herself into the story. There’s no need for some conventional plot. Life itself becomes the conflict. Charlize Theron again proves she’s one of the great modern actresses. A complete chameleon, the chiseled physique and beautiful profile from “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde” becomes a relatable, ever so human person here. Marlo’s body has the weight gain of pregnancy, she’s a middle class woman taking care of a family, so when she finally gets some breathing space she plops down in front of the TV and snacks. Cody’s script is admirable in not turning Marlo into a cartoon. In an age of high media objectification and an obsession with body image, a movie like “Tully” prefers to portray individuals as humans. Theron’s performance is full of intelligence, an edgy wit and fierce independence. Theron never evokes a movie star look in this film, instead we see the tiredness in her eyes and the weight on her shoulders.

Once Tully steps into the picture the film pulls a fast one, at first appearing to be another one of those stories where an enlightened, New Agey personality magically appears to inject life into a dreary home. But Cody and Reitman are too smart for that, instead they weave a relationship that turns into a meditation on the passage of time. Tully takes care of the baby with effortless technique, letting Marlo know she can also help with anything else around the house, even tips for re-starting Marlo and Drew’s sex life. She spouts hip, up to date trends and the kind of facts fresh college kids throw around. But it’s not a feel-good narrative. Through Tully Marlo is looking back at an earlier age, when life was simpler, breezier. We soon realize Tully isn’t teaching Marlo anything, she’s reminding her of the past. In one scene the two decide to sneak out to a bar, but the moment isn’t just fun, it’s also melancholic. Marlo warns Tully that your 20’s are great, but then “your 30’s come around the corner like a big dumpster truck.” As with “Young Adult,” this is a film about a person unsteady in the present, mistakenly thinking that moving backwards will give her happiness. The ending avoids being a recycled, formula resolution. It becomes something else full of pathos. Diablo and Reitman refrain from easy answers. They settle for a last shot that is subtly tender and free of dialogue.

“Tully” begins as a story about motherhood and then grows into a narrative of deeper dimensions. It understands how many of us feel at certain crossroads in life. By avoiding clichés and crafting real personalities it becomes an enduring portrait, beautifully endearing in its blemishes.

Tully” opens May 4 in theaters nationwide.