Tully – movie review

by Peter Calder / 15 May, 2018
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Tully, a vividly authentic story of a mother on the verge, has a surprise up its sleeve.

If the second-act appearance of this film’s title character puts you in mind of 2007’s effortlessly charming Juno, it’s no surprise: Tully is, like that film, a collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody.

Tully (Mackenzie Davis) comes to the rescue of Marlo (Charlize Theron), a New York suburban mother of two (including a son somewhere on the autism spectrum) who, early in the movie, gives birth to a third. Her husband (Ron Livingston) is well meaning but feckless and doesn’t see that Marlo, struggling to cope, is close to the edge.

It’s hard to think of a film that so vividly conveys the dog-tired desperation and existential messiness of life with a newborn (if Marlo seems more strung-out than might be expected for a third-time mother, an explanation is coming). In a series of montages, Reitman cranks up the volume to show how hard she’s doing it, and Theron’s transformation – she piled on 22kg and endured jags of depression – ranks with her extraordinary self-reinvention for her Oscar-winning portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster in 2003.

When Marlo’s rich brother offers to shout her a night nanny, who will tend to the baby while she catches up on sleep, she refuses. She’s keen to show she can cope and not to be beholden to him and his odiously smug wife (their daughter’s act at a school talent night is Pilates; their dog’s name is Prosecco). But finally, she picks up the phone.

The gamine, pixieish Tully proves a magical presence, becoming Marlo’s can-cope alter ego with such ease – she cleans, and bakes cakes Marlo can pass off as her own at school – that it’s hard not to suspect her motives and sense a horror story in the making. But the film takes its time revealing her backstory, and Marlo’s for that matter – even if it drops clues, like Hansel-and-Gretel crumbs along the way.

Sustaining mystery in a movie when audiences don’t know they’re watching one is a big ask and Cody keeps things afloat thanks to good characterisations and some whip-smart dialogue that rings wholly true. Better, an impromptu girls’ night out in Brooklyn is saturated with a danger that we can’t really name. If the second plot twist, which brings the first one into focus, seems a bit contrived, it’s not enough to derail the entire undertaking. Tully is finely honed and enjoyable entertainment.

Video: Zero Media

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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