In 2011’s Young Adult – the last collaboration between director Jason Reitman, star Charlize Theron, and writer Diablo Cody – Theron played a woman who couldn’t move past her childish behaviors. With a character completely motivated by her own desires and narcissism, this trio created the ultimate archetype of self-absorption, a black comedy that didn’t hold back on showing the weakness of only caring about yourself. With their second collaboration – Tully – Theron takes on the exact opposite character, the personification of The Giving Tree, as she puts her family before herself to a level that could break her. It’s in this more generous extreme where Theron, Cody, and Reitman provide some of their finest work in years.
Marlo (Theron) dreams about mermaids. Her typical day is nothing but exhaustion, as she takes care of her two kids – one of whom seems to have a learning disability – and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) leaves most of the family responsibilities up to her. Before she goes into labor with her third child, she has another mermaid dream. In popular myths, mermaids are known to symbolize impending doom, as they used to lure sailors into treacherous waters. In dreams, mermaids supposedly represent deception, or being suspicious about something good that has unexpectedly come into one’s life.
This turns out to be true as her already hectic life is made even more stressful with the arrival of her new daughter, as sleep deprivation and irritation loom over every day. As a baby gift, Marlo’s rich brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for the services of a “night nurse,” who will come and take care of their newest addition so that Marlo can get a good night’s sleep for once. At the end of her rope, Marlo gives in and accepts the help of Tully (Mackenzie Davis). She seems almost seems to good to be true, and Marlo forms an instant connection with her.
For Marlo, Tully reminds her of the free-spirited New Yorker that she once was, and shows the youth she abandoned in exchange for her suburban life. While Young Adult dedicated itself to arrested development, Tully has Marlo longing for just a fraction of her former life and the paths she chose not to take.
More than Marlo’s relationship with her husband or her children, it’s her dynamic with Tully that makes this Reitman’s best film since Up in the Air and Cody’s finest since Juno. Cody is smart enough to not moralize that the path of the youth is ignorant, or that Marlo’s life deserves more appreciation. Cody only brushes slightly against these ideas, instead showing that the grass is always greener, and that both are equally problematic in their own unique ways. For the writer who was once almost too quirky for her own good, Cody shows a perfect amount of restraint, even in a third act choice that could’ve been played much bigger than it is.
Theron and Davis’ relationship is electric, and their excellent performances say so much about who they are and the choices they’ve made in their lives. Theron plays Marlo like she carries a huge burden, sometimes literally, and that she’s been defeated by the mundanity of her life. But even at her most bedraggled, the love for her family is still clearly there. Davis has to be Tully’s version of Mary Poppins, an nearly magical entity that attempts to fix the family she’s caring for. Davis does this, while also hinting at her liberated style that screams of the youthfulness that Marlo craves so much. Together, Theron and Davis play Marlo and Tully, respectively, with a beautiful balance where both crave what the other has.
As a director, it’s easy to take Reitman for granted, but his greatness is in his simplicity. For example, with Juno, he muted his color palette the older the eponymous character became, while in Up in the Air, the more his main character’s life became less certain, the more Reitman relied on handheld cameras to present unease. Reitman takes an equally clean and effective approach here, presenting the warmth of Marlo’s home and the brightness Tully brings to it, but within the grime, darkness and lived-in air surrounding the household.
Both Cody and Reitman seem as if they’ve learned quite a bit about child-rearing since Juno over a decade ago, and it shows in their growth as writer and director. Theron proves once again how much of an underrated chameleon she’s become in recent years, and Davis’ performance is another in a string of solid roles that shows her as a great actress in the making. Tully excels as a family drama, a dark comedy, a friendship story, and surprises in each of these categories. After Tully, here’s hoping that we haven’t seen the last of this trio.