It’s almost a miracle, given the enormity of her pregnant belly, that Marlo (Charlize Theron) even manages to trudge down the stairs of her home in the opening shot of Jason Reitman’s Tully. But she’s adamant about being with her son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who exhibits the traits of autism. And as she lovingly rubs the kindergartner on his chest, back, and legs with a soft brush, simply because it helps to calm him down, the filmmakers offer an almost Pieta-like snapshot of Marlo’s selfless devotion to her child.
While Marlo’s love of her son and her nine-year-old daughter, Sarah (Lia Frankland), is unmistakable, it’s also clear that she had her hands full even before her unexpected pregnancy. When Jonah’s principal (Gameela Wright) tells her that Jonah is “quirky”—an ambiguous but not meaningless word that reeks of flippancy—Marlo takes umbrage at the woman’s refusal to address her son’s mental issues head-on. In this moment, as Marlo soldiers on by her lonesome, forced to confront Jonah’s complications along with her impending childbirth, we start to see the cracks forming in her maternal armor.
In Marlo, screenwriter Diablo Cody has created her most complicated character to date, and in no small part because of the moment-to-moment specificity of the characterization. Cody’s dialogue still abounds in witty quips and pop-culture references, but there’s a newfound depth to the way she conveys the myriad pressures that plague her protagonist. Marlo, once she gives birth to her daughter, begins to exhibit selfish and self-defeatist behavior that brings to mind that of Theron’s character in Reitman and Cody’s previous collaboration, Young Adult, but Marlo’s conduct is more intriguingly sketched throughout Tully—understood to stem from her frustration at not being able to protect and provide for her children in the way she wants.
Would that Cody’s writing displayed similar richness and empathy in painting the film’s supporting characters, who are all conspicuously placed in opposition to Marlo at various points in order to elicit the viewer’s sympathies. Marlo’s husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is the epitome of the hands-off parent, either on the road for work or zoning out while playing video games in bed. Elsewhere, Marlo’s wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), and sister-in-law, Elyse (Elaine Tan), represent clichés of an equally deliberate kind: the couple that can afford to bypass parenting altogether.
It’s Craig who provides his sister with the services of a night nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), and once the young woman enters Marlo’s life, the film’s secondary characters fade into the background and remain there. Tully is charming, but her relentless cheeriness and boundless compassion for Marlo belies something strange about her identity: that she may, quite literally, be too good to be true. And as the young, vibrant nanny works tirelessly to shake Marlo out of her postpartum depression, Reitman begins to introduce magical-realist elements into the film—a nighttime excursion into the city, an amusing yet uncomfortable threesome—that ably put us in his deliriously exhausted, wish-fulfilling protagonist’s mindset.
Getting us to question the veracity of Tully’s existence is gimmicky enough, and then Reitman and Cody resort to using an overplayed and contrived narrative device to explain Tully’s inevitable departure from Marlo’s life. Mercifully, the moment is matter-of-fact almost to the point that it doesn’t count as a “gotcha!” thing, but it still rankles. In the homestretch, the film unearths a number of thorny issues that put us in the position of questioning the rejuvenated Marlo’s ability to be a good mother in the first place. But the filmmakers avoid addressing these concerns, sweeping them under the rug to clear the path for a happy ending that, as a result of such evasion, registers only as unintentionally disconcerting. It’s an unfortunate misstep in a film that initially suggests, at least in regard to its honest depiction of maternal struggle, that it could never end up in such a state of denial.