Not that long ago, Charlize Theron was lean, mean, and jumping off balconies in 2017’s stellar Atomic Blonde. Now ten months (and fifty pounds) later, the doughy and frumpy incarnation—as pushed-to-the-edge mom Marlo in Jason Reitman’s Tully—is just as riveting. And the transformation is as jarring as the one she undertook in 2003 between her turns as a sexy safe cracker in The Italian Joband hideous serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.
Theron is a chameleon, to be sure, but it’s not just a matter of eating a few extra donuts or shaving off her eyebrows. She’s a bona fide (and woefully underrated) talent, whether she’s screaming in the desert in Mad Max: Fury Road or hamming it up in Snow White and the Huntsman. And Marlo is just the latest in her long, long resume of top-shelf performances.
Pregnant and raising two young children with her largely apathetic husband Drew (Ron Livingston), Marlo is a mess of hormones, hip-deep in sippy cups and grade school art projects, surrounded by a bevy of insufferable people, including her posh sister-in-law and the obnoxious school principal who has given up on Marlo’s special needs son. When Marlo finally has her baby, she reaches the breaking point and begrudgingly agrees to hire the “night nanny” whose services Marlo’s wealthy brother gifted her earlier.
When Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives, Marlo is understandably skeptical at first but eventually comes to allow the nanny into her life, happy to finally have a chance to get some rest along with some much-needed help around the house. Before long Tully is whipping up a batches of cupcakes overnight, doing the laundry, and only interrupting Marlo’s sleep to bring the baby for a quick feeding.
There’s no way to help thinking to yourself that Tully is headed toward The Hands that Rocks the Cradle territory (or maybe something a little less sinister but just as disconcerting), but Tully zigs when you think it will zag and instead offers a poignant fable about motherhood and family and regrets and growing up. The clever, neck-snapping “twist” that closes the film may trip on its own logic a bit, but its heart and mind are in the right place, and Tully more than manages to survive as a whole.
The script by Diablo Cody, who previously teamed with Reitman for Juno and Young Adult, is as true-to-life as can be; moms will no doubt empathize with Marlo’s daily travails and become even more invested in the already riveting script the more her life spirals out of control. Theron, for her part, loses herself in the role and expertly avoids portraying Marlo as a caricature of forlorn motherhood; her nuance and fearlessness propel the film forward, and Davis’ sublime supporting work elevates it even further.
Tully is a magical and inventive film that provokes equal measures of heartbreak and hope. And as the summer movie season begins, packed with explosions and superheroes, it reminds us that sometimes real heroes come armed with breast pumps and binkies.