Parenting is difficult at the best of times, but when one is hampered by mental illness, it’s a task rendered even more challenging, leaving one open to ostracism. Few films have dared to tackle the issue, and fewer still have succeeded in advancing it, making this Charlize Theron-starrer a welcome exception to the norm.
Marlo (Theron) is a forty-something mother who is heavily pregnant with her third child. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston) and their two children, Sarah (Lia Frankland) and Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), where they all reside in modest comfort, though they are often overshadowed by her financially-successful brother Craig (Mark Duplass) – he has been utilising the services of a “night nanny” to ease to strains of parenthood.
Weeks after the birth of her newborn, Marlo finds herself struggling, taking heed of her brother’s approach and contacting a nannying service. Her nanny – a young, free-spirited woman named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) – arrives at her home that evening, taking to the role almost immediately. Despite some initial reluctance, Marlo eventually warms to the oddball Tully, with the two engaging in deep, therapeutic conversations on a nightly basis.
Tully is the work of director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, who previously collaborated together to produce the films Juno and Young Adult. Viewers may note that their latest venture shares plenty of motifs with their previous pictures, including the pregnancy and motherhood themes of Juno and having Theron play the central protagonist, as she did in Young Adult. In theory, this should provide Tully with an air of familiarity, but the final product instead feels remarkably different.
Setting Tully apart from the other Reitman/Cody works is a discussion regarding how poor mental health can affect one’s ability to parent. The plot does not address the affliction as openly or candidly as other pictures might (Silver Linings Playbook, for instance) but it does take steps to ensure that Marlo is seen in a favourable light – too often, when a fictional parent has a mental illness, they are often seen as neglectful, thereby further stigmatising the issue.
Here, the struggling parent is seen as a victim rather than a villain, with the viewer sympathetic to her plight very early on. The movie demonstrates how motherhood is constant and demanding – the first act is the best argument for celibacy this reviewer has ever seen – with Marlo being portrayed as a loving, devoted mother at her wit’s end. After seeing what she must contend with, it’s no wonder Marlo desires the services of a nanny.
As for the rest of Tully, everything is pretty solid. Mackenzie Davis is a charm as the warm and friendly title character, while Charlize Theron’s performance as Marlo is rather good, though not wholly convincing. In addition to what is mentioned above, Diablo Cody’s script contains some smartly-written dialogue, along with subtle allusions to Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee. As with most dramas, the pacing does occasionally lag, but it doesn’t stop one investing in the story.
At a time when mental illness is being frankly discussed, Tully prefers to take a more whimsical approach, yet does so without delegitimising the issue. Clever and heartfelt, it’s a film which is bound to generate discussions around parenthood and mental health for many years to come.