Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Charlize Theron
Although they've had success separately, it feels safe to say at this point that director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody function best as a team. 2007's Juno remains their big hit, both commercially and in terms of awards, while 2011's Young Adult remains one of the most criminally under-seen and under-appreciated movies of the last decade. Their latest film, Tully, is neither the heart-warming crowd pleaser that Juno was, nor does it possess the same acidic, take-no-prisoners attitude of Young Adult, but it's a sharply written and wholly compassionate film about a woman who is drowning in the responsibilities and expectations of motherhood. That woman is played by Charlize Theron, an actress who has no fear of leaning into a character's worst qualities without trying to soften them, which is exactly what the role demands. The performance is tremendous and the film itself rises to meet it.
The premise of the story is that Marlo (Theron), an overwhelmed mother who has just given birth to her third child, is gifted with some help in the form of Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nurse hired by her brother to provide respite care. Ostensibly Tully is there to care for the baby from dusk until dawn, but it's Marlo herself who benefits the most, getting some much needed rest at night that allows her to be the mother she thinks she ought to be during the day. With Tully on the scene, not only looking after the baby but also doing things like cleaning the house and baking cupcakes in the middle of the night, Marlo is more relaxed, more patient, and seemingly happier, much to the relief of her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), who alludes to the postpartum difficulties that Marlo experienced with their second child and his own ignorance about how to support her through those issues. Drew's a good guy, but he's a bit clueless, so when Marlo tells him that things are fine, he accepts that without asking any questions, even as he becomes increasingly aware that something is a bit... off.
What Drew doesn't understand, and the film gradually reveals as it peels back layer upon layer, is just how much weight is resting on Marlo's shoulders. The problem isn't just that she's tired from looking after three children, one of whom is an infant and one of whom has such severe behavioral issues that he's expelled from school by a principal who euphemistically dances around just coming right out and saying that he's a problem they don't want to have to deal with, and that the division of labor in the house isn't anywhere near equal (Drew is shown to be involved as a parent, but it's telling that at one point he states that Marlo just left the house, leaving no one to look after the kids, and the person he's talking to has to point out that, in fact, he was still at home). Marlo is dealing with problems that are very general to women in her situation and very specific to herself. Generally, she's struggling to cope with postpartum depression as well as the intrusions of people who feel entitled to offer unsolicited opinions to mothers and mothers-to-be, putting them forever on the defensive about being judged and found lacking. In the eyes of others, whatever choice she makes is going to be wrong (and this cuts both ways, as her declaration at one point that she would never hire a night nanny upsets her sister-in-law, who did hire one and feels like Marlo is saying that she's somehow less of a mother for doing so), because there's no one universally agreed upon right way to be a mother, but there are millions of ways to go wrong in the eyes of others.
Marlo is also dealing with much more specific problems that are taking a psychological toll. Near the beginning of the film she runs into a woman that she used to know before she got married and had kids. The encounter stirs in her a sense of regret for the path not taken, making her question who she would be and what her life would look like and if she'd be happier if she had made different choices. At the same time, however, having a family is what she always wanted and providing her children with the sort of stable home life full of boring routine that her own childhood severely lacked is the goal that she wants to achieve, so this longing she suddenly feels for something else (or, rather, the "idea" of something else) makes her feel guilty but it also makes her feel like she's failing at what she's doing because if she can want something else, then that must mean that she's not happy with what she has. She's ashamed that she longs for something else and ashamed at the thought that she can't hack motherhood and this shame isolates her and makes her unable to ask for the help that she desperately needs but that no one around her seems to recognize that she needs.
Marlo is a woman plagued by anxieties, by pressures internal and external to present a certain way and live up to a certain image, to make everything look so much easier than it actually is, all of which is exacerbated by postpartum depression. Theron digs deep and plays every aspect of this, unafraid to be unglamorous and even unlikable, her character teetering so close to the edge mentally that she walks through the world like an exposed nerve, so sensitive to the touch that anything has the potential to be unbearable to her. The arrival of Tully, so remarkably baggage free and played with such lightness by Davis, seems like a miracle at first. So magical is Tully's presence that she's like a Millennial Mary Poppins, bringing the whole house into order, but the secret to Tully is that the eponymous character's arrival is actually a harbinger of something very dark from which Marlo might not be able to return. The dark turn of the narrative is at odds with much of the film's advertising, but it's also what makes the film so potent. This isn't a light, fluffy movie about a nanny who swoops in and "fixes" everything for a family that's on the verge of coming apart; it's a raw drama about a woman suffering from a mental health crisis that goes largely unnoticed by the people around her. It's not the prettiest story, but there's an unfettered power to it.