Birth Pangs

Tully is a maternal horror story as terrifying as anything since The Babadook.

Charlize Theron in Tully.
Charlize Theron in Tully. Bron Studios

If she were so inclined, Charlize Theron could probably play youthful, glamorous badasses like her characters in Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road for another decade. But Theron, who debuted on screen as an ingénue at age 21 and struggled to be taken seriously as an actress until her Oscar-winning turn in Monster, isn’t satisfied with the illusion of agelessness. In several of her high-profile films—including Young Adult, Snow White and the Huntsman, and now Tully—Theron has fought for, even relished, growing older in front of us. Her assertion that aging women have stories worth telling is the least bold claim in this radical and exceptional drama about the trials of motherhood and mourning one’s carefree years.

Tully reunites Theron with the director and writer of the 2011 cult classic Young Adult (Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, respectively), and their collaborations have been so stellar I wish they’d consider making a new film every seven years, like the Up Series. The trio achieves a rare level of candor, empathy, and excoriation, marrying been-there observations with a ballsy flight of fancy that only works because its implications are so gutting. Watch it as part of a double feature with the similarly themed The Babadook, and you won’t be sure which film is more terrifying.

When we meet her, Theron’s Marlo is days away from giving birth to her (unplanned) third child, and already completely spent. She has a job she doesn’t care about, a kindergartner son who may have special needs, and a sexless but functional marriage with Drew (Ron Livingston), whom Marlo describes as the grounded bench in the careening sexual merry-go-round that was her 20s in Bushwick, New York. The 50 pounds Theron gained for the role is just the beginning of the film’s mission to expose the less-than-enchanting facets of motherhood. After the delivery, we see Marlo shuffle to the hospital bathroom in a diaper and yell at a nurse about urinary catheters while forcing herself to pee on the toilet. The maternal and bodily scenarios here that we never see in other pop cultural depictions are painful and manifold, and that’s the point.

Marlo’s life is utterly ordinary, save for a vitality-restoring gift from her wealthy older brother (Mark Duplass): a night nanny who’ll help Marlo catch up on sleep. Marlo is initially resistant; she doesn’t want her baby bonding with a stranger every day. But she gives in when the punishing routine of caring for three children mostly by herself renders her a heap of raw nerves. Faster than you can say “Mary Poppins,” a perfect helper named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) appears on her doorstep, promising to take care of mother and baby.

Tully is too good to be true, a sprite in crop tops and heavy eyeliner who helps Marlo become the mom she wishes she could be. Through Tully’s sincerity, Marlo’s able to appreciate her new daughter Mia for the first time, taking a moment to kiss the little girl good night, for instance, because, as the nanny reminds her, “She’ll be different in the morning.” After such a heavy first act, it’s a relief to laugh again, particularly at Tully’s unselfconscious insertion into the most intimate of acts. When Marlo breastfeeds at night, Tully gets close enough to unsnap the mother’s bra and observe of the baby, “She’s got a strong latch.” Tully becomes the friend, confidante, cleaner, and cook whom Marlo desperately needs, and later, even the conduit through which Marlo rekindles her sexual relationship with her husband. But Marlo’s dependence, of course, is far from sustainable.

It’s revolutionary enough for a mainstream film to focus on postpartum depression and advocate for child care help if one can afford it (while subtly critiquing how women’s entertainment tends to stigmatize the very needed help for new moms). But a tectonic twist near the film’s end reveals that Tully is about something far more universal and personal and unspoken and invisible. I saw Tully twice. After my first screening, I wasn’t sure what to think of the ending. The second time, I was convinced of the film’s brilliance. Knowing the revelation to come, I found the jokes funnier, the details smarter, the foreshadowing more harrowing, and Theron more impressive—simply the way she holds her head, and how her gaze shifts to reflect Marlo’s moods and wavering sense of control. Under a sloppy haircut, she’s achingly hysterical when Marlo turns her spikiness outward and heartbreakingly frustrated when overwhelmed by the demands of her children. You can see in Theron’s overly caffeinated eyes and slumped back the layers of loneliness and self-loathing that finally burst through, demanding change. Their truth, if taken seriously, could reorganize millions of lives.