Deep yet concise rumination on motherhood

By Michael O'Sullivan The Washington Post - Updated: May 4, 2018 at 6:26 am • Published: May 4, 2018 0
photo - Charlize Theron in "Tully." (Focus Features)
Charlize Theron in "Tully." (Focus Features)

You could say "Tully" is a familiar comedy-drama about a stressed mom in her 40s who, after her third child, finds physical support and emotional solace from a 26-year-old child-care aide. There's the trope of the disengaged dad (a warm and shaggy Ron Livingston) and even a sight gag about stepping on stray Legos, barefoot.

But that synopsis does an injustice to the film.

It doesn't begin to capture the cinematic sleight-of-hand by which this third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody ("Juno," "Young Adult") transforms itself from a garden-variety tale of harried parenthood into something stranger, more honest and even magical. How it accomplishes that trick must not be revealed; it involves one of filmdom's great bits of storytelling trickery. But that it does so, and in the service of a narrative that is at once prosaic in its specificity and marvelously poetic, should be celebrated, even sung from the rooftops.

Charlize Theron, never better, plays Marlo, an expectant mother of two children who, after her second child (Asher Miles Fallica) is kicked out of school because the staff can't accommodate the youngster's "quirks," decides to hire a night nanny to help care for her newborn. Such a position, which combines the skills of an infant sleeping coach, lactation specialist and Mary Poppins, entails watching the baby so Mommy can get her beauty rest, only waking her up - ever so gently - for feedings. If you get a good one, the night nanny might even make cupcakes and clean the house while you're in Dreamland.

Such a gift is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the almost impossibly wise, sexy, weird and slightly wild factotum who shows up - apparently paid for by Marlo's rich brother, Craig (Mark Duplass) - and who quickly becomes not only the hired help, but also Marlo's best friend and confidante. Laid-back yet eager to please as portrayed by Davis, Tully makes for a wondrously levelheaded and insightful foil to Theron's middle-aged mother, offering Marlo a sounding board for her anxieties about aging and inadequacy - as a parent, a partner and a person - as well as a devil's advocate.

Tully prods Marlo to reconnect with some part of herself that she believes she has lost. As Craig puts it, Marlo's like a match that's been "snuffed out."

Under Tully's care, she begins to burn a little brighter again.

Maybe too bright. Things come to a head one night when the relationship between Marlo and Tully, who seem to have developed some symbiotic connection, crosses the line between the professional and, well, the reckless.

Relax. This is no horror film about a psychotic babysitter. But the dynamic between these women suddenly shifts dramatically. At the same time, Reitman and Cody maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel, guiding their story off-road not because they're lost, but because that's where they have decided to take us.

The choice is a bold and thrilling one, and it mostly works like a dream, except for one scene where the film's narrative gimmick stretches the audience's credulity a bit much. That it works as well as it does is thanks to a screenplay that largely drops Cody's signature sarcasm - so often used to mask painful secrets - for a voice that is much more raw and direct.

Not that "Tully" is cinéma vérité, by any means. Things are never what they seem here - but there's a deeper, more authentic story Reitman and Cody are telling, even when - maybe especially when - the film veers toward fantasy.

If "Tully" is a movie that cheats, even lies to us a bit, it's to get at a more real and recognizable truth.

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