Diablo Cody’s scripts are always stories about complicated women, but also normally revolve around motherhood, to some degree. Juno followed a wisecracking pregnant teen; Ricki and the Flash followed an aging one-time rock star whose relationship with her adult daughter needed work. And even Young Adult is of a similar tone, following a woman who never moved past her teen years. Tully is about the unforgiving, dark side of motherhood.
Marlo is an exhausted mother of two who is about to have her third child. Her husband is uninvolved and basically clueless. She’s clearly suffering from symptoms of postpartum depression, among other things. She’s a shell of the woman she used to be, her mind consumed with all she could have been. Her brother suggests that she hire a night nanny to help out and give her life some normalcy. Enter Tully, half millennial Mary Poppins, half manic pixie dream girl, who comes in, immediately bonds with the new baby, fixes things practically overnight, and brings Marlo out of her shell in unexpected ways.
Tully is about the ugly side of motherhood, but it’s about more than that. This film goes places that very few mainstream films like it have gone. Marlo is a woman who is full of regret about the way her life has gone, but would never tell anyone that. She doesn’t see the use of complaining about her life. She won’t yell at her husband for playing video games constantly, but she will lash out at a well-meaning school principal. Her solitude and hopelessness feel painfully real, and yet her journey is ultimately rewarding.
This film makes narrative choices you don’t expect it to. The third act could feel ridiculous, not to mention exploitative if it were handled by filmmakers that didn’t know exactly what they were doing. Cody and director Jason Reitman are so sure about the story they’re telling, every turn this story takes feels natural and earnest, even when it could feel nasty and soulless.
Cody and Reitman, it turns out, do their best work together. After seeing Tully, the team’s third feature together, I hope they make ten more. Cody’s writing has matured considerably since her first Oscar-winning script, Juno. That film’s signature “hip dialogue” is all but gone now. It’s replaced by something better. It’s important to note that when Cody wrote Juno she was younger and wasn’t a parent yet. Now, a mother of three herself, Tully feels like a drastically different statement on parenthood altogether. And Reitman’s work tends to fall apart without his best screenwriter at the helm. The two have worked enough to figure out how to get the best out of each other.
Not to mention the film’s star, Charlize Theron, whose Mavis Gary in Young Adult is the polar opposite of Marlo. Mavis would look at Marlo and scoff. This is definitely a more sympathetic character study, but it isn’t any less biting or frank. Theron is always excellent. She seems to be learning more about this character the longer she plays it, and you often forget you’re watching an actor. Marlo ends up feeling every bit as memorable as Mavis.
In the end, Tully is an uncomfortable watch. It’s almost devastatingly sad but is equally as funny. It puts every character through the wringer but doesn’t feel mean or cynical. It also doesn’t feel saccharine or heartwarming. There’s no life-affirming, sugary moment about the joy of being a mother. Motherhood is complicated, but more importantly, so is life. And Tully pulls out all the stops and does almost everything right.