REVIEW – ‘Tully’

Full disclosure – I am not a parent. Parenthood films are not exactly aimed to connect with people without children, though the best still somehow do. But I know raising kids is difficult as all hell. I’m delivered brief glimpses of life as a parent when I’m called on to look after my two young nephews. However, I get to give them back and toddle on home to my quiet childless life, raising a glass to those who do choose to subject themselves to life as a parent before enjoying eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Something as starkly honest and daringly brave as Tully will likely impact mums and dads on a different level than it did me. But the power in its narrative and the sensational performance of Charlize Theron cuts through to land a sucker punch with all audiences.

Entering belly first, we meet Marlo (a sublime Theron) in the last days before her third (and unplanned) child arrives. Bursting at the seams with a gargantuan stomach, Marlo is ready to pop. Already mother to 8-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland) and 6-year-old Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), Marlo has her hands entirely full, even before the new bub arrives. Sarah is reaching the age where self-esteem issues begin to slowly creep in. Jonah is a deeply complicated child (often referred to as “quirky”), falling somewhere on the autism spectrum and on the edge of being booted out of his kindergarten who can’t cope with his special needs.

Marlo’s husband, Drew (a wonderfully understated Ron Livingston) is sweet and caring, but, like most dopey dads, he’s blissfully unaware of the demands of motherhood and the debilitating effects it’s having on his beleaguered and exhausted wife. He spends his time playing video games or dashing off on constant work trips, leaving Marlo to mostly run the household by herself. When baby Mia arrives, life naturally gets much more complicated and tiring for poor Marlo.

After the endless routine of midnight feedings, diaper changes, and sleep deprivation leave Marlo in a state of despair, leading to a total meltdown at Jonah’s school, she begrudgingly accepts a mildly-offensive gift from her far-more-successful brother, Craig (Mark Duplass) in the form of a “night nurse,” who’ll take care of Mia overnight while Marlo finally gets the rest she so desperately needs. Enter the vivacious Tully (Mackenzie Davis), who arrives late one evening to alleviate Marlo from the brink of mental exhaustion. Or as she so wisely puts it: “I’m here to take care of you.”

Tully is a 26-year-old brimming with optimism, confidence and, naturally, a slim and perky body yet to know the ravages of pregnancy. She’s a free spirit who sees the world through rose-coloured glasses and always has just the right piece of wisdom to counter match Marlo’s pessimism. Tully is everything Marlo once was, making it initially difficult for Marlo to relax and enjoy the newfound freedom that comes with Tully’s services. But after a few nights where Tully goes above and beyond her expected tasks (the house is spotless, cupcakes are left on the kitchen table), Marlo begins to realise the genuine blessing Tully truly is.

As the two begin to bond, Marlo comes back to life, slowly becoming the textbook wife and mother she’s so desperately wanted to be. She’s on the ball with her children’s lives. She’s exercising and taking care of her physical appearance. And she’s even managed to kick-start her non-existent love life with Drew. But is it all too good to be true? And can Marlo possibly sustain this functional lifestyle when the time comes for Tully to live up to her Mary Poppins-esque comparison and fly away forever?

A film like Tully lives and dies by its leading lady, and in Theron’s capable hands, this is easily the best lead female performance so far this year. Theron has always been an actress willing to throw herself completely into a role, especially when the film requires her to reinvent herself physically. Of course, it’s wildly admirable to see Theron put on 50 pounds to play a dowdy mother of three, but it’s only a small fragment of what makes this such a fearless and confronting performance which should snare Theron her third Oscar nomination. Theron has never been afraid to be unlikable or to “get ugly,” and here, she presents the downside of motherhood, warts and all.

Naturally, this presents plenty of humorous situations. After Jonah accidentally spills a cup of water all over his worn out mother, without missing a beat, Marlo simply sheds her soaked shirt, sitting defeated in just her bra, leading Sarah to exclaim: “Mom, what’s wrong with your body?!” But it’s when Theron is called on to present Marlo’s desperation and genuine exhaustion that she really shines. Theron communicates Marlo’s psyche with expert precision, often without a single word of dialogue. The angst is constantly written on her solum face, presenting a stark omission that motherhood is far from the supposed “blessing” most women present it as.

It’s a subject many still flee from talking about, fearing the judgement of seeming ungrateful with the gift of parenthood so many women are cruelly denied. And there will likely be some who may view Tully as such. But, purely from second-hand experience, I can attest this is a brutally honest and deeply earnest depiction of the struggles and perils many mothers do indeed face. Is it so wrong for women to openly admit motherhood isn’t always a total joy? And there’s no suggestion Tully is presenting itself as a depiction of every mother’s experience with raising their children. This is merely one tale of a multi-faceted journey which will either resonate or it won’t.

Tully is elevated by the presence of its titular character, with Davis shining as the etherial nanny from heaven. Theron and Davis have magnetic chemistry together which consistently feels authentic and genuine as if the pair were old friends. Tully is purposely mysterious and aloof, feeling as if she’s stepped right out of a dream, and Davis plays her with effortless charm and enchanting sincerity. There’s something so glorious about watching someone be so utterly devoted to the care of another human being, and it’s hard not to completely adore Tully and wish you had her in your life too. Much like Mary Poppins, Tully is that glorious helper who makes us realise it’s okay to not be okay sometimes.

The film’s true hallmark is its gorgeous screenplay, written by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult). Cody based the narrative on her own struggles with postpartum depression, and you feel that personal connection with every line of dialogue. It’s an intimate and honest portrayal of the debilitating illness that’s still somewhat taboo subject fodder, and you can only hope this may open many eyes to a battle so many women face during and after pregnancy. Tully is not using mental illness as a cheap plot tactic. This is an accurate depiction from someone who knows it first-hand. You really can’t judge the accuracy of something so deeply empirical.

Tully also wisely presents the effects of postpartum depression on those around those afflicted, especially those who can see the warning signs and damaging effects of the illness but have no idea what to do. Drew can see his wife is not coping but foolishly dismisses this as just a typical sign of the fatigue a new baby brings. Marlo’s children can see their mother is broken, but the innocence of youth prevents them from seeing just how damaged she really is. Craig is perhaps the only one to see Marlo’s exhausted state as something more concerning than just a lack of sleep, noting the comparison to who she once was by crushingly stating: “I just want my sister back.” It’s a revelation of how depression and anxiety can truly change a person and why this topic needs to be discussed more openly.

By its third act, Tully builds to a mammoth plot twist you will genuinely not see coming but soon realise you probably should have. It’s a climax that feels entirely earned and may just make you burst into tears. So too will the realisation of how hard on themselves most mothers are, constantly wanting to be “perfect” but always feeling as if they’re falling achingly short. There is no tougher job than that of a mother, and the harshest critic is always the mother herself. But Tully serves as a reminder that all mothers are just doing the best they can and the idea of parenthood perfection is ultimately a giant myth.

With another sensational performance by Theron and a beautiful yet stark portrayal of motherhood, Tully is a sublime piece of cinema that will touch any audience member. It’s a deeply important and incredibly relevant film which breaks the often verboten subject matter on what parental life is really like behind closed doors. For those mothers who feel like they are alone in their private battles, Tully will feel like the film you’ve long been waiting for. And for those outside the parenthood bubble, Tully stands as an eye-opener to a life that’s hard to understand if you’re not living it.


Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass, Elaine Tan, Lia Frankland, Asher Miles Fallica
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Producers: Diablo Cody, A.J. Dix, Helen Estabrook, Aaron L. Gilbert, Beth Kono, Mason Novick, Jason Reitman, Charlize Theron
Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Production Design: Anastasia Masaro
Music: Rob Simonsen
Editor: Stefan Grube
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: 10th May 2018 (Australia)