Good parents do the best they can, and we forgive them when they make mistakes. Similarly, the parenting comedy “Tully” makes a narrative misstep late in the game — and it’s a spoiler, so I’ll talk around it — but the film is otherwise so intelligent, so uncompromising and so bleakly hilarious in a genuine way that it’s easy to overlook the errors and focus on the good times.
For their third collaboration (after “Juno” and “Young Adult”), screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman are determined to strip away the gauzy sentimentality so often used to portray motherhood in the media. And with their “Young Adult” star Charlize Theron, they have a performer who fearlessly conveys the utter physical and spiritual devastation of constantly giving of yourself to others when all you want is a nap.
Theron stars as Marlo, a New Jersey mother of two who is about to give birth to a third child, one that was very much unplanned. Marlo’s already got her hands full: her younger son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica, “Ozark”) displays behavior that indicates he’s on the autism spectrum, although his school principal will only refer to him as “quirky,” and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is always traveling for work. (And when he’s home, he’s more likely to spend his nights curled up with a video game instead of washing a dish.)
Marlo’s wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) makes the offer of a “night nanny,” who will come in and stay up overnight with the new baby so that all Marlo has to do in the night is breast-feed; otherwise, she can get some much-needed sleep. She balks at first, having seen too many “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”-inspired Lifetime movies, but ultimately, the grind of diaper-changing, breast-pumping and kid-carpooling leaves Marlo so frazzled that she finally calls up the nanny.
Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), seemingly the answer to all of Marlo’s prayers. Not only is she great with the baby, but she cleans the house, bakes and has real conversations with Marlo, the kind of deep and meaningful chats that take Marlo back to her carefree single days. What could go wrong?
Where “Tully” goes from here will be a matter of taste, and while I question some of Cody’s third-act ideas, I applaud her and Theron for pulling no punches about the agony of parenting; the act of tending to an infant is handled with some of the grimmest humor this side of “Eraserhead.” Whether Marlo is stepping on Legos, dealing with Jonah’s school or trying to muster the energy to put a frozen pizza in the oven, Theron gives us a brutally realistic portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The film (and the actress) go places we never see in cinematic portrayals of motherhood, whether it’s a close-up of Marlo’s nipple, distended by all that pumping, or a frazzled Marlo attempting to jog, determined to keep pace with the young college girl who breezes past her. Theron’s performance is as sardonically witty as you might expect from her work in “Young Adult,” but she participates, ego-free, in the least flattering angles that Reitman and cinematographer Eric Steelberg (“Baywatch”) can throw her way.
The performances are strong across the board — all the scenes between Theron and Davis, in particular, overflow with empathy and understanding — and Cody’s writing has never been better. She’s toning down the pop-culture references (although we do learn that the distance between Marlo’s house and Brooklyn is longer than the entire running time of Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual”) and making her characters richer and more believable; significant silences are playing a larger role as well, and what Marlo and Drew don’t say to each other always carries more weight than what they do.
Ultimately, the film champions Marlo as a good mother, but it also honors her weariness and her indefatigability. “Tully” is no box of chocolates, to be sure, but it’s a memorable Mother’s Day gift.