What director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody get so right in their latest collaboration is articulating the way that having children ruins your life. They destroy you physically, emotionally, financially and psychologically, leaving you as nothing more than a quivering shadow of your former self. That is not to say they do this deliberately, it’s just the way it generally pans out and, at a time when catchphrases such as ‘work/life balance’ are bandied about with gay abandon to suggest that some kind of equilibrium is even remotely possible for the average family, Tully captures that realities of child-rearing in a way that is both excruciating and exquisite. Having first teamed up on Juno in 2007 and joining forces again for Young Adult in 2011, working together seems to bring out the best in both Reitman and Cody because, across their collective bodies of work, neither has been able to deliver anything as good as the collaborative efforts they have delivered together.
When we first meet Marlo (Charlize Theron, who also featured in Young Adult), she is heavily pregnant with her third child, struggling to cope with the myriad responsibilities of home and work with little tangible support from her husband Drew (Ron Livingston). Already battling with the challenges of a son who sits somewhere on the spectrum (although the word autism is never mentioned), the birth of the baby pushes Marlo into a funk of hopelessness, sleep deprivation and despair. It is obvious that Marlo is suffering postpartum depression (although, again this is never identified specifically) and struggling to cope. When her rich, arrogant brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a nanny to look after the baby through the night so Marlo can sleep, her initial reluctance quickly makes way for the arrival of Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a thoughtful and immensely capable young woman whose energy and efficiency proves a godsend; a Mary Poppins of the new millennium.
The script from Cody bristles with vivacity and wit as Marlo’s scepticism subsides and Tully becomes an indispensable part of the household, baking cupcakes and cleaning the house in the wee hours as the family sleeps. Wise beyond her 26 years, Tully seems to anticipate her employers every need, from housework to life advice, and Davis is terrific in the title role. In fact, both women deliver knockout performances and it is the remarkable authenticity of this unlikely friendship that may leave some feeling exasperated by the ending. This is a darkly comic piece in which Cody juxtaposes the struggles of parenthood amongst the working class with the charmed existence enjoyed by the social elite. Craig and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan) are a smug, financially well-to-do couple for whom parenting has been a breeze because they actually have little to do with raising their child, leaving it all to hired help. From their position of privilege, Craig and Elyse find it difficult to mask their disdain for Marlo’s state of despair and two contrasting dinner table scenes serve to emphasise the disparity in the realities between the two families.
Reitman and editor Stefan Grube (10 Cloverfield Lane) use montage to great effect to demonstrate the unrelenting rhythms and catatonic exhaustion that results from having to get up over and over again during the night to feed and change the baby; sleep measured in minutes rather than hours. Whilst Theron’s physical transformation has drawn plenty of attention (having gained 50 pounds for the role and, apparently, enduring a real life bout of depression in the struggle to lose it again) there is nothing stagey about her performance. Marlo is understated, soulful and sardonic, the perfect foil to Tully’s flirty, openhearted, free-spirited disposition, a reminder of Tully’s younger self living a bohemian life in Brooklyn before the bane of family and suburbia set in. In many ways a companion piece to Juno and Young Adult – and every bit as prescient and perceptive as both – Tully is not always an easy ride, but it is honest and honourable in its depictions of the perils and personal sacrifice that make parenthood every bit as debilitating as it is delightful.