'Tully': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A funny and piercing take on the self-abnegation of parenting.

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's third collaboration stars Charlize Theron as a desperate mother whose prayers are answered by Mackenzie Davis' nanny.

Eleven years after their breakthrough film Juno, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman team up a third time for Tully, another sharp, funny and strange look at pregnancy and some of the less common challenges surrounding it. This time, we approach motherhood not from the perspective of a pregnant teen, but of a mother of three (Charlize Theron) whose latest child might well be the end of her — if not for the arrival of the eponymous miracle nanny, played by Mackenzie Davis. Packed with more than a couple of possible feminist readings regarding the parenting/career/life question, the often-very-funny picture entertains while affording its characters their share of no-laughing-matter concerns.

The story's first act, in which Theron's worn-to-the-bone Marlo struggles through the last days of pregnancy only to dive into the wail/diaper/feeding routine of caring for a newborn, are a mainstream counterpart to Eraserhead's cinematic birth control: Always use protection, kids, or you might wind up living this out.

Marlo and husband Drew (Ron Livingston) already had their hands full. Their daughter is on the cusp of an awkward phase, and their son is "quirky" — a demanding special needs kid whose special needs have yet to be labeled. Marlo's brother (Mark Duplass), who has made money and is busy living a luxury-product life with his too-perfect wife (Elaine Tan), wants to give them the kind of baby present that says "you aren't up to this": He offers to hire a "night nanny," who'll keep watch over the infant while parents get some rest, only waking Mommy when it's time to breast-feed.

Drew and Marlo reject the offer, but when Marlo nearly goes postal at her son's school, she reconsiders. Enter Tully, who arrives one night full of wonder to balance Marlo's exhaustion, and her conspicuous midriff to remind Marlo what has become of her own body.

Oh, the ways this could go wrong. But after a few overnights during which Tully goes far beyond the call of duty — cleaning the house, baking cute cupcakes — Marlo is so won over that she starts staying up late just to hang out, drawing energy from her wise twentysomething advice and enjoying being treated like a sentient being.

Davis, who has excelled playing insecure or damaged women in Always Shine and Halt and Catch Fire, gets a very different part here, as a seemingly bottomless reservoir of good will and assistance. (Along with her performance in one of the better Black Mirror episodes, "San Junipero," this outing suggests someone should move her into center stage.) Tully is too good to be true, but Reitman gives no hint that this pic is headed in the psycho-nanny direction Marlo jokes about early on.

Instead, we watch as Marlo starts becoming a more picture-perfect housewife. Suddenly, there are smiles and home-cooked meals, and children who are puzzled to see Mom in makeup. Is Tully this generation's non-magical Mary Poppins? Or will she and Marlo decide they're in love and fly this nest of slumbering dependents?

The less said about the road blocks ahead, the better. But the climax gives Theron an overdue chance to vent the thwarted dreams her character has bottled up, even as Tully assures her (with the unintentional condescension of the young) that being a boring middle-aged parent is actually the manifestation of those dreams, something to be celebrated. Parenthood is rarely what people expect it to be, and it takes a robust capacity for self-delusion, or self-denial, to make it part of a happy life.

Production company: Bron Studios, Right Way Productions, Denver and Delilah Productions
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass, Elaine Tan, Lia Frankland, Asher Miles Fallica
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriter: Diablo Cody
Producers: Diablo Cody, A.J. Dix, Helen Estabrook, Aaron L. Gilbert, Beth Kono, Mason Novick, Jason Reitman, Charlize Theron
Executive producers: Jason Blumenfeld, Jason Cloth, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, Ron McLeond, Andrew Pollack, Paul Tennyson, Stan Thomas, Dale Wells
Director of photography: Eric Steelberg
Production designer: Anastasia Masaro
Costume designer: Aieisha Li
Editor: Stefan Grube
Composer: Rob Simonsen
Casting director: Kate Geller
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Surprise Screening)

R, 94 minutes