Light spoilers for TULLY to follow; read at your own risk!

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We don’t need a movie to tell us that being a mother can be frustrating, tiring, and even deleterious. But TULLY’s raw, humorous portrayal of motherhood is not one to miss. I had the opportunity to watch Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s third collaboration (post-JUNO and YOUNG ADULT) at the Atlanta Film Festival. TULLY provided everything I hoped for: tongue-in-cheek humor, realism tinged with self-awareness, and an ending to ponder.

TULLY’s (Seemingly) Simple Premise

Marlo (Charlize Theron), who already has a young daughter and a special needs son, is pregnant with her third child. After Mia is born, Marlo falls into a cycle of breastfeeding, baby-rocking, late-night waking, and breast pumping. Meanwhile, her working husband Drew fades into the background, usually only appearing at night to play video games in bed.

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On top of taking care of Mia, Marlo has to keep reigning in her “quirky” son Jonah, who’s prone to tantrums. Her brother, rightly worried, implores her to hire a night nanny to ease her burden.

Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis): a free-spirited 26-year-old who spews advice well beyond her youth and crop-top wardrobe. After Marlo lets Tully into her life, she gains a better night’s rest — as well as bond she hasn’t found with anyone else.

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Exposing the Humor in Reality

As one can expect from Diablo Cody, it’s not just the plot that’s magnetizing. The whip-smart protagonist, original dialogue, and humor in unexpected situations also pull you in. Marlo is full of witty quips, but the laughs often arise from the realness of the situations on screen.

You laugh at people acting in a normal manner going through normal days. This is because Cody slyly points out the humor in simple moments. In life, we often try to avoid embarrassment, shame, and misunderstandings. In TULLY, they become funny and enjoyable to watch.

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Spot-On Performances

Marlo carries weight. She struggles under the literal burdens of stomach rolls and milk building up in her breasts. She strains under the figurative burdens of a son about to be kicked out of school and dreams unfulfilled. In her script, Cody weaves physical and mental anguish together. As Marlo seems to grow happier, she wears more makeup and moves with more lilt. At the moment of her greatest inner turmoil, she self-destructs.

Theron shoulders Marlo’s problems with every ounce of her body. The actress gained 50 pounds to play Marlo, wanting “to get closer to her and get into that mindset.” Even weighed down with exhaustion, however, Theron stills allows the wit and edge of Marlo’s character shine through.

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As Tully, Mackenzie Davis radiates youthful energy and hope. Tully has unusual lines — on her first night taking care of Mia, she says to Marlo, “She’ll grow a little overnight. So will we.” They sound natural coming out of Davis when they easily could have been said with a hint of disbelief.

An Unfortunate Asian Stereotype

I loved most of the characters, but I have a small bone to pick with Dallas. He is a minor character, a silent Asian male with no emotions. Clearly, he’s only there so audiences can laugh at how he’s silent and has no emotions. He stands by as Marlo throws a few quips his way — his constantly stoic, almost bored reaction is always the punchline. And then the story moves on.

But haven’t we moved past this? Maybe Dallas was not written for an Asian actor, but nevertheless, he neatly files between taciturn Lilly from PITCH PERFECT and wordless Grace Park from 30 ROCK, hammering the stereotype that Asian Americans are passive and apathetic.

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In TULLY, Change is Repetition

In TULLY, time is a paradox. It both flashes by in the blink of an eye and hangs still in the air. Early in the film, to portray the slog of taking care of a newborn, Reitman drops an artful montage of Marlo cleaning, breastfeeding, and looking over her baby. Each scene marches quickly to the next.

But there is also a sense of flipping back and forth as Marlo goes through the repetitive motions. So much happens so quickly, yet nothing changes. As a teenager with ambitious and outlandish hopes for my future, the movie’s depiction of days going by that are busy but also mean nothing struck me. With fear or assurance, I’m not sure.

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A Wide-Open Ending: What’s Changed?

Part of the suspense in the film comes from the feeling that there is no suspense. Tully waltzes into Marlo’s life and, as expected, changes Marlo. So what’s left to see? Well, an unexpected twist that makes you reevaluate everything that came before. I’ll leave it at that.

Afterward, you know Marlo must be different. The new lighting, the affectionate embraces, and the small changes in routine all point to a new Marlo who has been shaped by Tully’s presence. But what exactly has shifted in Marlo, internally? It’s difficult to tell. Maybe everything, or nothing at all.

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