There’s a montage in Jason Reitman’s new film, “Tully,” that brilliantly captures the tribulations of early motherhood. Marlo (Charlize Theron), a harried mother of two, has just given birth to baby No. 3, a surprise named Mia. In a succession of quick cuts, we learn everything we need to know about the punishing routine of maternity: the incessant wails, the sleepless nights, the bruised nipples, the stains and spills that accumulate everywhere like unwanted abstract art—and the husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), who either sleeps through it all or escapes to video-game R&R and the quiet of his 9-to-5 job, a charmed life indeed.
By focusing on the stresses and the secretions, “Tully” demystifies motherhood more than any movie I’ve ever seen, favoring brutal honesty over gauzy clichés. Childbirth isn’t a miracle in “Tully;” it’s a soul-sucking chore that has reduced the child bearer to a life of breast pumps and trashy reality television.
Which isn’t to say that “Tully” is a pessimistic screed; far from it. It’s written by Diablo Cody, who understands complicated women and buttresses that knowledge with humor that’s both cutting and wry. With Mia’s birth just days away, she informs her sister-in-law that, “I feel like an abandoned trash barge.” Later, she describes her body as “like a relief map for a war-torn country.” Cody permits us to laugh at Marlo’s travails, because somewhere, underneath the swelling and the exhaustion, Marlo is laughing too.
The character could be an extension of Theron’s previous Cody protagonist, Mavis Gray of “Young Adult,” flailing through an unhealthy post-adolescence before finally taming her wilder urges with middle-class domesticity. Marlo works in human resources for a protein-bar company, but because she’s on maternity leave, we never see her professional life, only the grinding routine of homemaking. This includes a son, Jonah, whose developmental challenges have created an impasse at his private elementary school. Jonah loses his shit every time he hears a loud noise, and to calm him at home, Marlo brushes his body, as if he were a horse or a show dog. The school’s administrator, in announcing her dismissal of Jonah, describes him euphemistically as “quirky,” which Marlo sees through right away, retorting, “Do I have a kid or a ukulele?”
But there is a hope, and it arrives in the form of Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the disarming, free-spirited night nanny Marlo has hired at the urging of her affluent brother (Mark Duplass). Tully is everything Marlo isn’t: young, thin, curious, openhearted, indefatigable, a solar-powered angel sent to revivify Marlo. Tully stays awake with Mia all night, changing her and quieting her, and waking Marlo only for bedside feedings. When the baby’s asleep, she cleans the house. After listening to Marlo’s assertion that “good moms bake cupcakes that look like Minions,” Tully bakes a batch of cupcakes that look like Minions.
The relief Marlo feels is palpable. Pretty soon, she’s applying makeup again, and doing cardio, and getting henna tattoos, and singing karaoke with her daughter. “I can see color again!” she exclaims.
In a more conventional movie, Drew would find himself attracted to Tully. So would Marlo, perhaps—an early scene in “Tully” suggests Marlo’s history of same-sex relationships, setting up a potential affair or a ménage a trois. To an extent, Reitman and Cody go there, but not in the way you’d expect. It’s the first of a series of narrative twists that are genuinely shocking, leading to a tumultuous climax.
Some will appreciate this direction more than others. I’ve warmed to it the more I’ve thought about “Tully,” because it further underlines the movie’s objective, as an extraordinary portrayal of the all-consuming demands of maternity, and the toll it takes on the mother’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. These are subjects broached with depth, maturity and insight.
At the heart of them all is Theron’s performance, as removed from movie-star charisma as her performances in “Monster” and “North Country,” and as far from “Atomic Blonde” as one could imagine. She gained 50 pounds for the role, and it shows in every frame, and every judgmental comment from just about every minor character with a speaking role. This is what motherhood looks like, and sounds like, and feels like. Proceed with caution.
“Tully” opens Friday at most area theaters.