After loving their first collaboration (Juno) and disliking their second (Young Adult), I didn’t know what to expect with director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody’s third pairing behind the camera. The best I could do was enter the theater unprejudiced and hopeful for the best since I do like most of their work regardless of that mutual misstep. I can’t say Tully initially made it easy, though. Just because Marlo (Charlize Theron) and Drew (Ron Livingston) aren’t the generic rich, white, suburban couple able to afford a “night nanny” (Mackenzie Davis’ titular Tully), doesn’t mean the premise of needing one to cope after a third pregnancy becomes any less patronizingly elitist. We don’t want parenthood’s messy authenticity sanitized by a diamond prism—especially not in today’s political climate.

The worst thing you could do, however, is give up upon Tully’s bubbly, answer-to-our-prayers arrival because Cody understands our frustration. She knows her audience won’t let her get away with polishing a hard-ish life—they’re still generic white suburbanites with a rich brother (Mark Duplass’ Craig) and sister-in-law (Elaine Tan’s Elyse)—into something more pristine without allowing the hard work, compromise, and defeats necessary to fuel that evolution. Cody doesn’t spend so much time introducing us to Marlo and her family only to use them as obstacles to overcome. No, her kids (and husband) are presented as exhausting monsters she would never trade away for anything in the world. They’re her present, her love. She’s simply not too far-removed from her twenties to believe life changed so fast.

This is reality. It’s not Craig and Elyse vacationing while a vegan life coach raises the children. Marlo is a wreck as far as letting her self-esteem gauge fall to zero, but she does it because she’s a good mother. In her mind she’s not because “good” means baking treats and organizing parties—things a revolving door of step-moms never did. But she’s forgotten what it means to simply be there for them as their rock of a safety net whenever they hit a snag. It’s definitely gotten out of hand with Drew working long hours before playing videogames in bed and her barely having the energy to defrost frozen pizza, but they’re making it work. The time has simply come to reclaim their lost happiness within it.

That’s where Tully fits in. Craig remembers the depression Marlo suffered after the birth of her developmentally “quirky” son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) and hopes offering to pay for a night nurse will ease the burden. She of course shies away from the idea of letting a stranger care for her daughter while she sleeps, but at a certain point enough becomes enough. So she makes the call and Tully’s whirling dervish of a twenty-year old with bottomless energy playfully scratches at the window to be her very own Mary Poppins. And like that classic before it, this fairy godmother is here for the parent more than the kid. She’s a sounding board, housecleaner, and babysitter all-in-one. She’s a mirror reminding Marlo of her past and possible future.

This sense of recollection leads towards an awakening. Rejuvenation occurs rather than replacement. Marlo doesn’t remove herself from parental responsibilities by letting Tully in; she embraces them. And with it comes the recognition that her life is joyful and what she desires. Now a return to equilibrium within her body and soul can present itself. Here’s the chance to reclaim her sexuality, autonomy, and identity. And as Tully helps her uncover those things that marriage and parenthood hid away, Marlo also provides her young savior a glimpse of maturity, hindsight, and aspiration. I think the best word to describe their mutual effect is “calming.” Suddenly Marlo is no longer stranded on an island and the result proves as optimistically thrilling as the previous years were darkened by futility.

Both segments are equally raw, funny, and resonant, though. We laugh as Marlo stifles her own while attempting to play nice with the principal of her kids’ school and laugh even more when she finds the energy to speak her mind the next time they discuss Jonah. Theron is superb in the role, moving back and forth between quiet resignation, boisterous irritation, and eventually happiness. Her dynamic with Davis is perfection—the two playing off each other to simultaneously be peas-in-a-pod and polar opposites. And Cody provides them the room to grow without neglecting those Marlo must contend with during the day. We see progress with everyone in a real way beyond quick cliché. Life perpetually moves forward with a mix of unapologetic and heartfelt moments.

Things do risk becoming saccharine at times, but I never lost my investment in Marlo’s progression. You can feel the changing tides whether positive or negative, bracing yourself for both knowing they will arrive with humor, pathos, and honesty. This is key because Tully does something I rarely accept in films let alone applaud. The maneuver is at once obvious, revelatory, and necessary to the catharsis Cody has been working towards from the first frame. And while the final result may not ultimately become my favorite of her scripts (Juno may feel tired and obnoxious to some now, but it was objectively fresh a decade ago), it’s surely Cody’s most accomplished. Her characters pop off the screen to portray life’s mundanely complex splendor, all strings invisibly tied tight.

No matter how wonderfully composed the central thread of healing is, though, it’s nothing without the numerous little moments that make it possible. I’m talking about the human moments wherein a teacher compassionately empathizes with Jonah during a tantrum rather than annoyingly dismissing him. It’s the power of a cupcake, the psychological armor make-up can supply, and the much-too-late revelation by a father of his internal, involuntary patriarchal outlook devoid of an excuse. Cody has constructed an elaborate composition hidden by its countless complementary pieces that each packs a deceivingly potent punch. And even though Reitman is the one bringing her words to life, their partnership has always been solidly attuned. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she was right there by his side the entire way.

Tully is now in wide release.

Grade: B+

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