A mere year after Little Miss Sunshine changed the game for indie movies, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s Juno essentially defined the noughties version of the genre. Snarky, snappy characters that delivered comebacks you wish you could have thought of and verbosely called bullshit on trite truisms, all while backed by a none-more-chic soundtrack. Over a decade on, it’s still a formula that Cody and Reitman are sticking to with their latest collaboration Tully, and though it is a perfectly fun, diverting film, it often feels like a regression from the darker, more biting Young Adult.
Along with the writing-directing partnership, the other key holdover between Young Adult and Tully is Charlize Theron. Her role as Marlo, a mother of three including a newborn, is physically transformative, but Theron brings a whole lot more to it as well. Her exasperation and exhaustion is contagious, rolling off the screen in sad, defeated waves, but so too are any moments of joy or relief, small but powerful smiles breaking through the profound tiredness. Yet, Tully is not another film simply about the pain of losing the freedom of your youth, instead portraying motherhood as something incredibly difficult with equally incredible rewards.
This happier streak is brought about by the arrival of the eponymous Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny hired by Marlo’s rich brother Craig (Mark Duplass) to help her and husband Drew (Ron Livingston) get some much needed sleep. With their incredibly busy days – their son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is autistic and Drew’s job is full on and requires trips away – Tully is an absolute blessing, and her skill with the baby eventually translates to a strong friendship between her and Marlo. Their scenes together are plenty of fun, though often not as funny as you might expect given Cody’s track record as a writer, as are Theron’s interactions with the children, which are consistently sweet and naturalistic.
Genre conventions dictate that eventually this relationship should sour, but Tully, for the most part, eschews clichés like that. This is for the best, not only for an unpredictable story, but also because Tully simply doesn’t have the weight to go for a real emotional blow. All of its breeziness, whilst making it eminently watchable, also keeps it from making an actual impact. There’s none of the emotional heft of Juno’s ‘Jason Bateman is a bastard’ reveal or Young Adult’s explosive monologue of revelations.
The final act almost breaks out of this gentle rhythm, touching and shocking in equal measure, before a very odd magical realist twist that really doesn’t feel earned. It allows Davis and Livingston to bring additional depths to their performances, but bogs down the story in unnecessary convolutions that don’t really make sense in hindsight. Much of what works in Tully is based around its easy realism and authenticity, Reitman using a fly on the wall style that gives a mockumentary feel without being too mannered. Before Tully’s arrival, days and nights blend into a massive, indistinct whole in montages that make Marlo’s lack of sleep painfully clear.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Tully, and it’d be hard to find anyone who would out and out dislike it, but from such a previously dynamic filmmaking team, it’s a little flimsy. Fundamentally, it feels like a lauded Sundance movie from around a decade ago, before films like Whiplash, Get Out, and Call Me By Your Name turned the festival into an unpredictable, multifaceted masterpiece factory. As a bit of fleeting fun at the cinema, you could certainly do a lot worse though, with Theron’s fantastically empathetic work at its centre always compelling.