Movie review: Tully tackles the emotional complexities of parenthood

Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron bond over child care in Tully. Courtesy Focus Features Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron bond over child care in Tully. Courtesy Focus Features

It’s easy to reduce your identity to before and after you have children when your whole life feels like one long haze of sleepless nights and diaper changes. But what happened to the person who came before? Do they cease to be? How do you reconcile who you’ve become with who you were when your whole life was ahead of you?

That’s the central question of Tully, the new Diablo Cody-Jason Reitman team-up starring Charlize Theron as a conflicted mother. We meet Marlo (Theron) and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) when she is pregnant with their third child. Her oldest daughter is 8 and feeling the plague of self-doubt, and her 6-year-old son suffers from an undiagnosed emotional disorder that no one wants to directly address (euphemisms like “quirky” abound in meetings with his principal).

R, 96 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

Within a week of Marlo’s delivery date, two significant things happen: She randomly encounters Violet, her former roommate and possible romantic partner from what we learn later were her wilder days in Brooklyn (the knowing glances speak volumes). Then at a dinner with her wealthy brother, he offers to pay for a night nanny who will care for the newborn overnight so the parents can get some sleep. Marlo rejects the idea initially, but the exhaustion of it all catches up with her and she employs Tully (Mackenzie Davis).

Tully is a godsend, allowing Marlo to rest and have the energy to be a genuinely engaged parent. More than that, Marlo sees much of herself in Tully, and their relationship quickly turns personal. Why this happens and where it goes from there are best left unsaid, but rest assured there are no cheap love triangles, no unnecessary soap opera dramatics. Everything here is substantial, and even if you predict what many are calling a “twist,” the emotional payoff loses none of its resonance.

Much of the early discussion surrounding Tully has been from mental health specialists noting the similarity between Marlo’s experience and an underdiagnosed condition called postpartum psychosis. The comparison is presented as a negative one, that the film inaccurately represents the symptoms and what sufferers experience. To fully explore this idea would mean revealing key plot twists of the film, but it is worth considering. Cody’s metaphorical framework does not seem to have been intended as a direct exploration of PPP, but a representation of the conversations that most people would like to have with their former selves. This is not a sanitized depiction of mental illness as we often see from people seeking Oscars for their bravery, when all they did was avoid the more difficult questions. Marlo’s journey is real, and the fact that it mirrors that of someone with PPP is unfortunate. More could have been done to differentiate the two, but there’s too much valuable stuff here to write off.

Theron continues to astound, and her chemistry with Davis may be the best on-screen partnership of the year. The depictions of the highs and lows of parenthood are remarkable and possibly unprecedented in a mainstream film. There’s a bravery to Tully’s subject matter that will captivate you even before you learn where it is all headed, and it is easily one of the year’s best films.

Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

A Quiet Place, Avengers: Infinity War, I Feel Pretty, Life of the Party, Revenge

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

A Quiet Place, Avengers: Infinity War, Bad Samaritan, Black Panther, I Feel Pretty, Overboard, Rampage, Super Troopers 2, Truth or Dare

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000  

A Quiet Place, Avengers: Infinity War, I Feel Pretty, Isle of Dogs, Itzhak, Lean on Pete

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