No one mentions the baby’s name right away. This makes sense: Marlo (Charlize Theron) and Drew (Ron Livingston) are on their third, from a pregnancy that may not have been entirely intentional. Their oldest child, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), is struggling with some special needs that have yet to be fully diagnosed. Both parents work realistically boring, okay-paying jobs that pale in comparison to whatever Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) has done to live in obvious rich-family comfort. Marlo and Drew’s house, meanwhile, is littered with kids’ toys and microwave food. The new baby, whatever her name is, doesn’t seem to have a bedroom.
Tully doesn’t call attention to most of these details; they’re foregrounded but organic, the result of a third fruitful collaboration between screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. Neither filmmaker has a reputation that does full justice to their talent—Cody is more than her quippy dialogue, and Reitman’s films aren’t as callow as he’s made out to be—and neither is better at proving themselves than when they’re teamed up. Reitman recognizes the emotion beneath Cody’s tartness, and Cody rewards his attention with incisive material.
In this case, she expertly teases out the quotidian, potentially soul-killing realities of parenthood, which Reitman shapes at one point into a terrific montage of new-baby routines, a rhythm that becomes a brain-fogging, body-ravaging blur. There aren’t any major disasters at hand; Marlo’s life is basically uneventful but for the ways it keeps wearing her down. Craig, being rich and a little smug but not oblivious, wants to help. As a baby gift, he presents Marlo with the phone number of a “night nurse” who comes highly recommended. This is how Tully (Mackenzie Davis) shows up at Marlo’s door, ready to make things easier. In addition to her willingness to care for a newborn while Marlo gets some sleep, Tully is also nonjudgmental, gentle, loving, and, if not entirely stress-free, dealing with stress in a graceful way that may or may not come easier to the young, idealistic, and (as Marlo enviously points out) extremely able-bodied.
Movie nannies tend to come in two varieties: magical problem-solvers or obsessive stalkers (the latter often in TV movies that end with the mom “walking with a cane,” Marlo wryly notes). In a roundabout, inventive sort of way, Tully embodies both of these clichés at once. She helps her boss feel like less of an “abandoned trash barge,” as Marlo says in perfect Codyese, but is also genuinely interested in Marlo as a person. She insinuates herself into the family’s life, albeit only from the hours of roughly 10:30 p.m. until 6:30 a.m.
Davis doesn’t show up until at least a third of the way through this tightly assembled 95-minute dramedy, giving Theron plenty of time to dig into Marlo’s world before it starts to shift. The actor is the third component to this reunion, having starred in the previous Cody/Reitman joint Young Adult, and though Davis makes Tully convincing both as a human being and as a mysterious godsend, it’s Theron whose work is absolutely vital to Tully’s success. Though Marlo is less caustic and unpleasant than Young Adult’s Mavis, Theron remains a master of tiny reactions burrowing out from beneath more normal, socially acceptable ones, conveying disgust or defeat with little twitches of the eye or recoiling body language. When she indulges in an outburst, lashing out at the polite euphemisms of the principal who doesn’t think her kid is the “right fit” at an elite private school, it’s not cheap comic catharsis—there’s genuine pain and fear behind it.
These kinds of layered, conflicting emotions are all over Tully; peel away some problems, Cody seems to be saying, and you can still find more underneath. What feels borderline revolutionary about the movie is the way it looks at motherhood through the mother, not her relationship with her kids. Marlo clearly loves her family—Drew, being played by Ron Livingston and all, has his faults, but he’s not unfeeling, and the movie never forces the couple into nasty bickering (perhaps intuiting that they’d be too goddamn tired for it). Reitman and Cody aren’t especially interested in a narrative that’s about a woman rediscovering the joys of family life—or, for that matter, one that’s about a woman casting off those shackles, despite a late-movie sequence where Marlo and Tully tear it up in the former’s old Bushwick haunts (complete with the perfectly and silently observed rigmarole of driving into Brooklyn from the suburbs even when there’s not much traffic).
Instead, Tully is a clear companion piece to the other two Cody/Reitman films, and just as wonderfully complicated about where to even locate its central conflict, never mind how to resolve it. It’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as Juno nor as lacerating as Young Adult, and in some ways feels like a recombination of those movies’ elements: nostalgia, child-bearing, mistimed coming of age, remixed. But Reitman and especially Cody approach the material with the freshness of filmmakers still learning new things about themselves, still figuring out how to reconcile their grown-up selves with who they may have been in youth. Here’s hoping they keep checking in with each other for as long as possible.