Friday, May 4, 2018

Tully: We all need this kind of care

Tully (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.4.18

Pedigree does count for something. 

It’s gratifying to recall being charmed when filmmakers previously collaborated, and to have expectations met while enjoying their next project.

Tully (Mackenzie Davis, left) watches with unconcealed warmth — and pleasure — as the
happily rested Margo (Charlize Theron) nurses her newborn daughter.
Director Jason Reitman and scripter Diablo Cody first teamed for 2007’s Juno, which was no less than a pop-culture revelation: her debut screenplay — and a well-deserved Academy Award winner — and only his second big-screen feature. Not bad, for new kids on the block.

Juno profiled an endearingly free-spirited young woman, as she contemplated how best to handle an unplanned pregnancy. In a sense, Reitman and Cody have re-visited that scenario with Tully, an often awkwardly intimate study of a middle-aged woman — already a mother of two — wondering how she’ll survive an unplanned third pregnancy.

Charlize Theron is sublime as Margo, a full-time mother already stretched to the limit while juggling the demands of a full-time job and the parenting needs of 8-year-old Sarah (the utterly adorable Lia Frankland) and 5-year-old Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica). The latter is a special-needs child prone to distressing outbursts, particularly when his routine is interrupted by something as trivial as where his mother parks while dropping them off at school.

The film opens on a tender daily routine between mother and son, as Margo gently “grooms” Jonah with a soft brush: a ritual that she believes will help calm him. Reitman and cinematographer Eric Steelberg frame this sequence with exquisite warmth and sensitivity, and — right away — we know that no matter what else, this is a woman wholly and totally devoted to her children. 

And, although stretched to the limit, she has things covered. Life works.

It’s telling that no character in this story — not Margo, nor her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), nor the increasingly harried school principal (Gameela Wright) — ever uses the terms “spectrum” or “autistic,” despite Jonah’s behavior strongly suggesting as much. We get a sense that Margo resists the label, because acknowledging as much might put Jonah’s care beyond her capabilities ... and that would be unthinkable.

Livingston makes Drew an appropriately devoted husband and father, but his work involves long hours and lots of travel; he often isn’t around. Margo, nine months pregnant and ready to pop — having another child in her 40s was not part of their plan — is exhausted at the end of each day. She’s therefore beyond comment, let alone objection, when Drew concludes his day by playing video games in bed. It’s not as if they have the energy to use the bed for anything else.

At the same time, Livingston often gives Drew the wary uncertainty of a guy who, compassionate instincts notwithstanding, hasn’t a clue how to conduct himself. He errs on the side of giving Margo too much space, little realizing that this is just as bad as second-guessing her at every turn.

A long-scheduled dinner with Margo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan) is embraced reluctantly; it’s just one more obligation among too many others. (“Besides,” Drew grouses. “Craig hates me.” We’ll hear that line again, in a delightfully similar context.) Craig and Elyse have more money than God; their immaculate home would merit a cover story in House Beautiful, and the chi-chi dinner — chopsticks only, please — is prepared and served by staff from a local restaurant.

Margo is reminded, at every turn, of how she and Drew are so “plain” by comparison.

Interpersonal relationships — the good, the bad and the snarky — always are the primary allure of Cody’s scripts, and that’s absolutely true here. Craig is a bit of an arrogant horse’s ass; Elyse is condescending and mildly judgmental. (Tan shades her performance particularly well.) At the same time, their hearts are in the right place; they’re simply so far removed from middle-class challenges, that they have no clue.

But Craig, wanting to be helpful, gifts his sister with the offer of a night nanny: a caregiver who arrives at roughly 10 p.m. each evening, and watches over the baby until early morning, so that the mother can (more or less) get a good night’s sleep.

Margo resists, appalled by the very notion of a total stranger caring for their newborn.

But then baby Mia arrives. The subsequent montage — the initial three weeks with this new member of the household — is brilliantly orchestrated by Reitman, Cody and editor Stefan Grube. It’s an accelerating nightmare of sleep-deprived newborn care, regular child care, breast pumps, diaper genies and late-late night TV. Of exhaustedly maneuvering through scattered toys, ignoring unwashed dishes, and burrowing into laundry baskets to find clothes that are only mildly ripe.

Theron, throughout, perfectly captures the exhaustion, desperation and blasé resignation of a woman at the end of her tether; rarely has an A-list actress allowed herself to look so unappealingly bedraggled. (Recall her similarly transformative performance in 2003’s Monster, which brought her an Oscar.) Meltdown is inevitable, and — in the aftermath — a reluctant call to the phone number Craig gave her.

At which point, after a lengthy first act that superbly introduces and sets up so many essential character dynamics, this film becomes something entirely different.

The free-spirited Tully (Mackenzie Davis) isn’t merely a breath of fresh air; she’s an effervescent force of nature. She’s also ... well ... mysterious, in a manner that neither Margo nor we can quite articulate. (“She’s weird,” Margo admits to Drew, after the initial meeting. He’s okay with that.)

Cody’s narrative subsequently moves in marvelously unexpected directions, teasing and repeatedly tricking us at numerous turns. It’s impossible to anticipate where this is going, although it’s fun to try; suffice to say that Cody has everything well in hand, while moving through second and third acts that are beguiling, revelatory, insightful and even unexpectedly erotic by turns.

Cody has made no secret of her personal fondness for playful sexuality, and she gets considerable mileage — and humor — from this story’s sly application of same.

Tully is a career-enhancing role for Davis, until now best known for television’s Halt and Catch Fire. Big-screen work has been limited to tiny supporting parts, but I suspect that’ll change; this is an attention-getting performance akin to Emma Stone’s breakout work in 2010’s Easy A. Davis effortless slides into the skin of this bohemian young woman: part intellectual, part nurturer, part counter-culture Berkeley throwback. To say she’s enchanting is mere understatement; Davis positively sparkles.

What happens next is transformative ... but not in the way you likely expect. Saying anything else would spoil the fun.

Tully is laden with moments of profound truths and painfully raw intimacy: no surprise, since Cody developed the script shortly after giving birth to her own third child. The result — this film — gives a voice to the postpartum struggles of all women who resent the unspoken implication that they should be blissed-out at every moment, lest they be perceived as cold or ungrateful.

Cody, Reitman, Theron and all involved do so with grace, intelligence, charm and heartfelt sensitivity. All the way up to the absolutely perfect final scene.

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