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Monday, April 16, 2018

AFF Review: TULLY is surprising and charming

On its face (and from the marketing materials), Tully looks like a sort of fairy tale for new mothers: after the exhausted mother of her third child, Marlo (Charlize Theron), is gifted a "night nanny" Tully (Mackenzie Davis), her life suddenly turns around and becomes fun again as she's able to do it all. It looks a bit like the opposite of Marlo's initial worry, that the night nanny will try to take over her family "like one of those Lifetime movies that ends with the mother walking with a cane." There's an element of that kind of escapism in the movie, but only for a while, and Tully goes so much deeper than that.

First, the most obvious thing to note about the movie is its honesty. The difficulty of motherhood is portrayed with a clever and casual reality, especially in the new mother montage that cuts sharply from one late night feeding mishap to another, from spilling some freshly pumped breast milk to accidentally dropping her phone onto the infant that's just fallen back asleep. The movie is unflinching in its commitment to not hiding these trials, and it often results in a humor that hits right at home; a great example is when Marlo takes off her shirt at the breakfast table (her son just spilled his juice all over it) and her daughter innocently comments, "Mom, what's wrong with your body?"

As much as that humor comes from the page–the film is written by the always sharp-witted Diablo Cody–Theron's performance is what truly makes the film something special. She embodies the character of Marlo perfectly: embattled but desperate to find some way to be the wild, open-minded partier of her youth amidst a lack of sleep and the difficulties of raising a special needs child. She's funny and charming, and it's impossible not to fall in love with her. It doesn't hurt that Mackenzie Davis is absolutely perfectly cast as the titular Tully, too; as director Reitman said after the screening, she has "infinitely curious eyes" that make her innocently youthful questioning of Marlo's depression a comforting presence rather than an obnoxious one.

Tully is a much more complex film than it first appears. What could have been a simple studio comedy about how to be a good mom becomes, in the hands of Reitman and Cody, something more interesting and surprising. I didn't expect to make comparisons of this movie to something like The Babadook, but the two actually have a lot in common about finding a new identity and building relationships with your children, especially when they are having developmental issues.

What especially sets Tully apart, though, is that it pulls off something that few films do: it subtly hides its themes inside another story, not to be revealed until its surprising climax. I'd be crazy to ruin it, but suffice to say that it takes a turn that suddenly makes the film's central ideas seem to float to the surface of what you've just seen. It's almost two movies in that way–one about sharing the load and youth bringing life back into a tired existence and another about how our identities change as we transition from childhood to adulthood (or parenthood, in particular). Both work well, but when laid on top of each other as the movie brilliantly does, it feels a little like magic.

There's almost a sort of trilogy here, as this is the third collaboration between Cody and Reitman: from the sudden onset of adulthood in Juno to the putting off of adulthood in Young Adult to the complicated, messy look at that transition in a less exaggerated way in Tully. For my money, Tully is the best of the three and manages to be exceptionally mature without losing any of the magic charm that these two always seem to produce.

Tully is written by Diablo Cody, directed by Jason Reitman, and stars Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis. It opens in theaters on May 4th.
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