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Friday, May 04, 2018

Tully

Tully is the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, their previous efforts being 2007's Juno and 2011's Young Adult.  This film marks a maturity for both of them, and continues to show how their teaming up brings out the best in both of their talents.  This is a movie that revels in the truths and uncomfortable realities about motherhood, combining a dry sense of humor with the deeply personal as well as the magical.

There is plenty of Cody's trademark snarky humor on display, as well as her ability for strong dialogue mixed with humorous pop culture references such as Epcot Center, Pinky and the Brain and Monster High.  However, she also shows a a wisdom and a certain quiet honesty that she hasn't before in her previous screenplays.  Tully feels deeply personal, and I was not surprised to learn that this film was inspired by the birth of her third child.  The impact that this event has had on her life allows her to be very raw and emotional.  It is also an intimate film, and the way the narrative wraps you under its spell is so unexpected.  It doesn't even seem all that plot-heavy for a majority of its running time, but after the final scenes played out, I found myself thinking back on everything before it more and more.  This is a movie to slowly savor before we get the rush of summer blockbusters in a couple weeks.

And carrying the entire film is the superb performance by Charlize Theron, who has never been afraid to appear unglamorous on the big screen.  This time, she dives head-first into the dark side of being a mother, frequently disheveled, and seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  It's a brutal, frequently honest, and funny performance.  She plays Marlo, a suburban mom with two kids already, and a third due any day as the film opens.  This pregnancy wasn't planned, and at 40-years-old, she thinks she's too old to be going through raising a baby again.  Her other two kids are the insecure Sarah (Lia Frankland), and six-year-old Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who is autistic and struggling in public school kindergarten.  Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is supportive, and helps make the lunches and with Sarah's homework.  But he is also dragged down by his job, and has to travel a lot for work.  When he plays video games in bed before going to sleep, he's not ignoring his wife or her problems.  It's just that he needs to unwind himself in his own way, and they never have time to talk about what's going on.

Marlo gives birth to a baby girl named Mia, and seems detached from most of the process of having a baby.  She is in a zombie-like state as she struggles to take care of this new child, while setting time aside for her other two kids and their needs.  The stress brings about horrific nightmares, and if Marlo seemed like she was on the verge of a breakdown before, by this point, she looks like she's had multiple.  Her wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) notices this, and offers to hire a night nanny for her, someone who can take care of the baby and everything else in the house every night so that Marlo can catch up on her sleep and rest.  Marlo is not keen on the idea, thinking the idea of inviting a strange woman into her house to take care of her baby "sounds like a Lifetime Movie" that would not end well.  But then she meets the nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis), and little by little, she seems like the miracle that Marlo has been waiting for.

Tully is essentially a free-spirited Mary Poppins with a perfect body, and the kind of optimistic look on life that can be contagious.  She's wise beyond her 26 years, and seems to have advice that suits any and every situation.  She even has time to clean up the house while everyone is sleeping, and can bake an array of cupcakes for Jonah to bring to his class.  The more time Marlo spends with her, the more she begins to remember who she used to be before she got married, and a friendship begins to grow between the two women.  They have a deep and personal understanding with one another, and frequently spend time talking.  However, both characters are much more complex than they initially appear, and as Cody's screenplay slowly builds their relationship, we learn to love these women.  We also fall in love with the easy chemistry that Theron and Davis display in all of their scenes together.

As a movie, Tully goes to some unexpected places that I will not reveal here.  But even before it starts surprising us, it has a lot of honesty and truths to say about the pressures of raising a family, and how important it is to take care of yourself, even when it is your job to take care of everyone else around you.  It expresses these views in ways that are smart, funny, and subtle.  It's also a film filled with small, wonderful moments.  There is one scene where a teacher at school helps little Jonah calm down after he becomes upset that is so beautiful.  It has nothing to do with the plot really, but you're glad it's in the final cut, because it's one of the most truthful scenes depicting calming down an autistic child I have ever seen in a film.  This is a mature and heartfelt film that feels like it's been made from experience.  You can feel how personal a project this was while you're watching it, and you can sense it in the writing, directing and performances, all of which have a sense of reality we seldom see from Hollywood.

This is the rare kind of film where I found myself wanting to spend more time exploring these characters, and learning more about them.  Even when the movie takes a hard turn into some unexpected territory, it's still grounded in some kind of reality, mostly due to the two lead actresses and the down to Earth nature of the dialogue.  Tully is an unexpected surprise that ends up being funny, heartfelt and ultimately touching in ways you may not expect.

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