'Tully' Movie Review: Charlize Theron and Jason Reitman Team Up for a Desperate Depiction of Motherhood

In Young Adult, Jason Reitman's underrated 2011 feel-bad comedy, Charlize Theron gave a deranged performance as a woman so desperate to reclaim her youth that she tries to seduce an ex-boyfriend who's married with a baby.

In Tully, Reitman's latest feat of anxiety—and his fourth collaboration with the screenwriter Diablo Cody—Theron plays another aging woman who longs to recapture her glory days, though this time she's the one married with the baby. Three kids, in fact. And motherhood has taken a toll.

When we meet 40-something Marlo (Theron), she is tending to her young son and visibly pregnant with a third. Marlo is far more likeable than Young Adult's Mavis, and yet also more exhausted—after the baby, Mia, is born, she spends her days in a sleep-deprived cocoon of nursing and diaper-changing, finding brief escape by nodding off to a soft-core porn reality show.

Marlo works in the HR department of a protein bar company, and she secretly misses her twenties, when she lived in Bushwick and went to all the cool bars. Her loving but unassertive husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is busy with some inscrutable, jargon-heavy corporate gig, a sly nod to his Office Space role. And things come to a crisis when their eldest child's behavioral issues grow somewhat unmanageable at his school. (This is a film so eager to express the unglamorous side of parenthood that one of its best scenes—the dreaded "Your kid needs a special school" parent–principal conference—is nabbed straight from Ron Howard's Parenthood.)

Charlize Theron stars as a tired, stressed out mom of three in the new movie 'Tully.' Focus Features

Then Marlo's wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) decides to hire her a "night nanny" as a gift, so she can get some rest for once. Reluctantly, she agrees to give it a try. The film's script takes off when Marlo meets Tully (Mackenzie Davis), an endlessly exuberant 26-year-old nanny who arrives at her door from Brooklyn like some stress-resistant angel from the mommy heavens. "I'm here to help you with everything, not just Mia," Tully informs her, and indeed she provides not just maternal assistance, but also emotional solace and general companionship. She is funny, free-spirited and suspiciously selfless.

Reitman's film have a particular knack for portraying unlikely partnerships—romantic or otherwise—without descending into mawkish or predictable territory. In Up in the Air (2009), there was the uneasy romance between attachment-averse George Clooney and fellow frequent-flier Vera Farmiga. Young Adult depicted a curious friendship between Theron as the aging ex-prom queen and Patton Oswalt as the hometown loser with sad-sack wisdom to offer. (Warning: This next paragraph contains some spoilers.)

In Tully, of course, everything hinges on the intergenerational bonding that occurs between jaded Gen-X-er Marlo and effervescent twenty-something Tully. There's excellent onscreen chemistry between Theron and Davis during the movie's crucial middle third, as the younger character's energy plays off the mother's exhaustion. During one of the film's funniest moments, Marlo tells Tully about her husband's odd sexual fetish, and Tully proposes an unorthodox solution to their nonexistent sex life. But after a doomed night out in Marlo's old Brooklyn neighborhood, the film takes a dark left turn, and it becomes apparent that her relationship with the night nanny was not what it appeared to be. (It's also suggested that Marlo's postpartum psychosis was worse than we realized—an element that has been met with sharp criticism among maternal health advocates.) There are some fairly abrupt tonal shifts during the film's final act, and a fascinating plot twist that the movie doesn't quite contend with to a satisfying degree.

Ending aside, Tully provides an admirably complex and unsanitized depiction of motherhood, which is largely thanks Cody's deft writing and Theron's deeply committed performance as a mom who loves her kids but is slowly losing her grip. This is a uniquely unglamorous glimpse of the parenting life, from the hospital sequences (such as the scene in which a nurse who just delivered Marlo's baby demands that she pee) to Theron's disheveled physical appearance—she gained more than 40 pounds to make the role believable.

Reitman has amassed a reputation as a director of clever films about uncomfortably "grown-up" subjects: corporate smooth-talking (Thank You For Smoking, Up in the Air), pregnancy (Juno), divorce and depression (Young Adult). With Tully, his parenthood movie turns out to be a surprisingly disturbing tale about growing up. Or trying to, at least.