Cody, Theron and Reitman are a filmmaking ménage à trois—Tully is their beautiful baby

Back in 2007 (Australian release 2008), Juno was a real moment. It shot young talents Ellen Page and Michael Cera to superstardom, while its screenwriter Diablo Cody earned an Oscar and found in her director Jason Reitman a perfect partnership. The screenplay’s oddball-realist dialogue (‘This is one doodle that can’t be un-did, Homeskillet’) and Juno’s zingers (‘It’s Morgan Freeman. Do you have any bones that need collecting?’) spawned a kind of indie-film hipster-language while props like the hamburger phone became immediate popcultural icons.

After that, Cody kind of vanished. The satirical horror Jennifer’s Body (2009) generated buzz with its wagon hitched to Megan Fox’s blindingly bright star, but by the time Young Adult (2012) came around, with Reitman directing and Charlize Theron starring, as they do in Tully, Cody receded to the respectable position of a tremendously talented screenwriter with a distinct style disregarded by the mainstream.

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In a way, this couldn’t be better for her. Young Adult showed her writing had developed, wrangling with a more morose sense of humour while demonstrating the consequences of disaffected teenage wit all grown up, and it demonstrated that Theron was a perfect pick for Cody’s dialogue and tragically juvenile characters. Tully is easily her most mature work yet and one of the year’s best dramas. It’s a fine example of a director who knows how to deliver the screenplay he’s given and a writer who delves into her subjects because she believes in them. The film is affecting and engrossing, even if it does falter towards the end.

Theron plays Marlo, heavily pregnant and raising two kids while her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) works late and doesn’t fully conceal his disappointment when his exhausted wife serves up microwaved pizza for dinner. The kids are mostly okay. Sarah (Lia Frankland) is a little snooty but she behaves herself. Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) on the other hand, aggressively kicks the seats in the car, has proto-panic attacks when he hears loud noises and acts up in school. Marlo is regularly called in to the principal’s office to discuss his ‘quirky’ behavior.

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It’s key to the movie that nothing is drastically terrible in Marlo’s life. She and Drew are for the most part a wealthy couple with a pretty happy family. This is not a story about terrible circumstances. What draws you in, what this film is about, is Marlo. Marlo is exhausted, unhappy, underslept and shambling through life like a zombie who has even lost its craving for human flesh. Playing her, Theron is mesmerising. Recent roles like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), in which the one-armed Furiosa’s bitter survivalist attitude tells us who she is, and Atomic Blonde (2017) as Lorraine Broughton, who fights and takes hits with an almost upsetting authenticity, are defined by their physicality. Theron carries Marlo’s weight to the point that it’s exhausting to watch. Every stair climb, every drowsy dip into unconsciousness in front of reality TV programs on telly, is given heft and attention to make this character live.

When her rich brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to hire a ‘night nanny’ to care for the now-born baby, Marlo reluctantly takes him up on it. This is Tully (Mackenzie Davis). Chock-full of oddball facts and life-affirming philosophy, the film begins to veer dangerously close to twee-territory, as Tully is a kind of manic pixie dream girl who will also look after your baby and bake you cupcakes and clean your house. Reitman’s direction is understated however, and the focus is kept on Marlo, grounding the story so that it never skips away with Tully, who seems to float in and out of the night like an on-call guardian angel.

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Surreal dreams of swimming in deep water with mermaids populate Marlo’s fitful sleeps. She becomes more rested as Tully proves herself to be a marvellous helper, lifting the film’s mood. There is a drastic event towards the end, but what it all seems to be building towards is something more affecting, something that would define the tone of the film and shatter the viewer’s expectations. It doesn’t do this, which isn’t so much to discredit to the film because what it does do is tremendously powerful in its attention to character, but it might leave you wondering what it was all building to. Perhaps this is intentional. It’s ultimately a realist film intent on conveying the exhausting mundanities of motherhood, which it goes above and beyond in doing. Besides, who hasn’t felt that their life is building to something, in some grand narrative, only to see it continue the same, the next morning, just as real and as tiring as ever?

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