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‘Tully’ takes unique turns

May 12, 2018

I can recall a decade ago when a young writer named Diablo Cody made a splash on the screen with "Juno," earning an Oscar on her very first foray into feature films.

Her witty dialogue was lauded by many (including Oscar voters), but I found that her skill with wordplay never seemed to fit the characters she had created on the screen.

I realize I am in the minority, but I never jumped onto the "Juno" bandwagon, as I found many of the characters' actions were far too narratively convenient and artificial, and their dialogue was far more scholarly than their situations, playing like a "Freaks & Geeks" clone that was trying far too hard.

Cody's subsequent outings left even less of an impression, but still featured lines that were more complex than their characters: the horror-comedy "Jennifer's Body" felt like an edgier "Twilight" franchise entry; "Young Adult" (the last outing with Cody, Theron and Reitman) was fleetingly charming, but the leads bordered on sociopathic, and the film had an underlying contempt for Theron's main character. And does anyone even remember the Meryl Streep debacle "Ricki and the Flash?"

She has reunited with "Adult" director (Jason Reitman) and star (Theron) for "Tully." But the big difference here is that she keeps her Cody-isms at bay, giving us perhaps the most realistic-sounding and human characters she's ever produced.

There are moments of too-cute-by-half dialogue that manage to sneak in occasionally, but the talented cast, assured direction and premise all serve to bolster the material to a thoughtful, warts-and-all meditation on motherhood.

Theron plays Marlo, whose chaotic, barely suburban lifestyle is a far cry from her post-collegiate dreams of what might be. In her 40s, and days from delivering her third child, Marlo can see her sanity's last thread slowly unraveling as she deals with her two children (one suffering from an undiagnosed affliction that seems to be on the autism spectrum), a pleasant-but-not-extremely-helpful husband (played by Ron Livingston) and a nary a moment to care for herself.

Her well-off brother (played by Mark Duplass) suggests hiring a "night nanny," someone who comes in to care for the newborn so Marlo can enjoy some restful evenings.

Enter Tully (played by Mackenzie Davis) a pixie-ish, all-knowing sitter – like Mary Poppins by way of Coachella.

Tully sees not only to the newborn's needs but to Marlo's overall health as well, acting as a shoulder to lean on, a therapist, and a drinking buddy. Marlo slowly emerges from her depression and engages more with her family. But Tully's assistance is limited, and Marlo must soon face the day her helper will no longer be available.

The film takes some rather unique turns that may lose audience members in the final act, but I found these less a cop-out and more of a cinematic device that seemed to fit the film like well-worn slippers. And Theron is once again spectacular throughout. Her dive into the unglamorous world of the early days of child rearing is yet another demonstration cementing her as one of our finest modern actors.

Her plight as an overworked mommy is an assemblage of all the various trying aspects involved therewith.

There is no wacky, klutzy montage where a child is left on a car roof in haste, no quick physical rebound into her model shape, and not nearly as many moments of comedy as the trailer would suggest. But it's not depicted as some parental purgatory, either, as there are moments of true affection shared between the characters throughout.

There are no clear antagonists, and no real heroes, either, as there are many qualities Marlo possesses that are far from the rom-com depiction of motherhood. It's just life, and the multiple trials it brings to maintain one's sanity and identity.

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.