By Jacqueline Howell

Astute filmgoers likely don’t need to revisit the exciting trajectory of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman and the solid, original movies they’ve made together since their debut, the new millennium’s sweet, quirky hit, Juno (2007). But maybe they should. Reitman has now directed seven films since Juno (along with TV projects) which is a marathon pace for Hollywood production, without sacrificing an eye for quality and truth. Charlize Theron, who made the underrated and very good Young Adult with the duo, has been going from strength to strength (we will also review Atomic Blonde on this site) as an actor who rarely puts a foot wrong in her diverse and interesting film career. Here, Theron matches a career high with a performance garnering comparisons to Monster, for which she won the Oscar. The masses who saw the feminist strength in that film should turn their attentions to this one. (Arguably, Tully is the better film, and her turn as Marlo is deserving of just as much acclaim and awards as her performance as the late spree killer Aileen Wuornos). Theron has managed something astonishing as an actor: to weave strong feminist messages into characters that are so vivid, they speak to men and women alike about what women’s rights and equality is all about, and make plain why it’s an essential core value for all. Here it is. It looks like this. There is no bigger, stronger, more believable or more watchable male star than this female one who’s built a body of work, brick by brick, since the mid 1990s, working, first, within the very narrow parameters assigned to starlets of all eras, then busting through them like the beloved, unstoppable Kool-Aid man. A rarity.

Why isn’t everyone talking about Tully? Is it just that the all-important promotional cycles of films are lost in a sea of social media noise these days, treading water next to reality TV which has, disturbingly, become entwined with our geo-political climate? Do we assume that we are so plugged in that we forget how much we miss, how we used to find movies in more grass-roots and charming, long gone ways? A man’s thumb up, way up on weekly TV that everyone watched or quoted from? A newspaper spread, a bigger than average ad, even for just a single Saturday that stirred excitement in young hearts? Our own inner compass that would follow a great actress anywhere? Like a friend? We need that friend. I need that friend, again. Enter Tully.

The film has received strong notices, and the overwhelming boys club that still dominates the world of film criticism has gamely taken on a movie that is entirely built around femaleness and the inner world of women’s friendships, bodies and selves. The film deals with interiors of homes and heads, without alienating anyone not familiar with the world of motherhood. So there’s that. Diablo Cody has admirably maintained an original voice in screenwriting and story that has stood tall and apart from the deluge of superhero films, reboots and rebrands that Hollywood favours, evermore, these days. Let’s cheer for her. Let’s welcome more original female writers, too.

Tully is best seen without too much pre-reading. (Like we used to, or still do with, say, Nolan). The director, the screenwriter, and the stars are all you need to recommend the film. But films, like newborns, need a lot of love and care to be delivered and raised up. So we write for the ones worthy of notice. This film feels intimate, almost a work of cinema verite, but without the jarring camera work. It feels real. An exhausted, emotionally frayed yet stoic mother has just given birth to her third baby. Audiences don’t learn that baby’s name for some time. Marlo is just too tired to tell us. Among her young children, her (now) middle child of 6 or 7 is finding his place in the world, a quirky boy who’s not labeled or diagnosed, bright, but a handful, especially for his mother who masks and covers for him gamely while silently scanning youtubes for lifehacks of how to address his needs. This is modern motherhood, modern loneliness. This is truth. We are fraught with new feelings of inadequacies and strategies as adults, and we have all been conditioned to think we are on the outside of expensive systems, in need of unattainable aids. Maybe mothers have never had it harder emotionally than now. Maybe none of us have. At the centre of life and culture now looms worries about our collective and individual mental state, that of the children, worries that range to and fro and weigh us down like a wet blanket.

Marlo’s brother (Mark Duplass), who is in a higher economic strata, is an annoyance to her, but seems quietly devoted to his sister, offers her the large and awkward gift of a night nanny for the new baby’s early months. It’s promised that this helper, highly trained in early childhood education, will sneak in and out like a ninja, allowing Marlo something that should not be a luxury but is: any sleep. Time with her husband (even just sleeping). A break from the feeding, rocking, pumping machine of new motherhood. One gets the sense that with her son’s issues, the sleep deprivation of all parents has been ratcheted up for an untold amount of time. It’s something between them: a boy’s sensitivities and her anxieties. Not if you’ve been this mother, this child. Normal, or not? There is no guide book. Marlo finally agrees to the arrangement in a moment of intense stress and the plot turns to the friendship of Marlo and her night nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis) over a period of weeks.

We’ve seen so many films full of horrible cliches about men and women and marriage and family life and friendship, so many thrillers full of illogical sexual tension and exploitative nudity, that this film seems to hold some suspense in the first third about what, exactly, it is. It’s weird, but in the good way. We need weird, weird that is true, revealing, enlightening. We’ve been ruined by genres, by categories. Good films just are. The mind leaps to horrible cliches in the first third as Tully enters the fray. We’ve become so used to the idea of fictional and actual American husbands that kill their wives without ever breaking stride, bad affairs and selfishness, cruelty and a total misapprehension of what real life and love is, that a movie that shows a wife and husband who seem to be friends / allies / loyal is almost mythical, even in indie-ish and art house films that skew to the dark side of our psyches and always go a little surreal in service to the actor’s need to stretch, on a budget.

Both Marlo and her night nanny allude to the mistrust brewed among women thanks to films like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a great summer chiller of a more innocent time. That movie is one I’ve seen maybe twice, but still colours my worldview of stories of letting a young woman into your home and near your children. Diablo Cody understands this, the pop culture bleed of the last twenty years, she’s attuned. This adds colours and layers to the narrative missing in other films that are written by men. This makes her writing great. Marlo and Tully bond and form a trust that is often missing on screen, slowly finding similarities that all new friends find, with delight. Marlo’s husband (played by Ron Livingston) rarely sees the night ninja in their midst. She is as promised. Tully is a young woman of today: the ones that heartrendingly dress in the stuff we used to wear 20 years ago. And she wears it better than we did.

The film is written, paced and scored exquisitely, the dialogue well-rounded and mature, catchphrase-free. Juno was of its time, a decade ago feeling like another life in our culture, and we’ve all grown up. So have the filmmakers. There are striking notes of beautiful originality that boy writers may not have caught or felt tears spring up at, but this reviewer does: during a drive into Brooklyn from wherever Marlo lives now (I’d say about an hour away) they play the entire Cyndi Lauper album that defined the lives of little girls in 1983 and for years after: She’s So Unusual. The driving montage is reinvented – beautifully – by via snippets of the various tracks of the album, in order – something only a 1980s kid would write, get or respond to. Laughter, tears, recognition, truth, beauty. Ah. This is art. We can still have art.

The important gesture of the gift of the night nanny, offered quietly and humbly from a place of care is hard for Marlo to accept. Money is so fraught, guilt is so big in women. Gratitude is hard to find, to articulate. Theron’s Marlo doesn’t have energy to try to be liked, and gives every iota of her resources to her family. But the audience sees something all-important about money, wealth, family dynamics, function and dysfunction. The middle section of this film displays the idea that with support people can be lifted out of their circumstances, their struggle, their named or nameless mental issues, their fatigue. Money is a tool, used well, it is a true gift. Families need support to exist, to thrive. The presence of Tully, who is just a little too good to be true, but too lovely to resist, and so needed, turns Marlo’s spirit around, gently, she is there to, as she says “bridge the gap”. There is more to the relationship than should be revealed here but it is a satisfying and moving conclusion that avoids all cliches, tropes and foolishness. Ah, yes, amid the dreck, film can still surprise us. The best films always do.

Do you know how hard it is for the most famous faces to disappear into their roles? Into their bodies? Into reality, for real, not prosthetics or “I went make-up free” or a few all-nighters before filming? It’s near-impossible. We know their faces, whether broadcast fifty-feet high or on our small, airplane screens of consolation, better than our loved ones. And Charlize Theron is brave all the time in her work: she’s already had to weather a whole cycle of even serious critics who once offensively attempted to reduce her stunning, bare bones, empathetic work in Monster to the back-handed compliment of a beautiful woman making herself look ugly. As if it was something done in a make up chair instead of an artist’s career best (but not her only triumph). People will always underestimate and try to suppress and repress women. Strong women. Beautiful women. Angry women. Women masking their crises and saying they’re fine. And women with some weight on them, and new mothers, can end up feeling invisible and cut off from themselves, their womanhood and their spirit. This film addresses all this with candour and humour. Marlo’s shadow world is familiar to many of us: bingewatching bad reality TV (GIGOLOS) and fully-loaded nachos for one. Clothes must only be stretch, and comfortable, anything more is too much.

What a great film does, which fantasy realms usually skate over, is that relatable characters are more essential to our spirits than aspirational ones. Remember the great leading ladies and their films of decades past? Before the blockbuster, the psycho-sexual thriller, the National Lampoon films? This film is of the current moment, as well as a throwback, and a much needed one in the cinematic landscape where an industry is talking about equity and equality and representation and inclusion, and must remember that all of that still has some distance to go for (even) middle class (white) women, perceived to be “fine”. Civil rights include all of us. Identity questions, our names, our ideas of ourselves, are part of our life-long missions.

Tully is a women’s film that everyone should see, refreshingly genreless and original. It is profound, moving and surprising, and through a lot of spilled milk there’s a story of self, health, and the slippery idea of self-care (and what that looks like today). This film is special, funny and important. It calls back to great literature of another time when we wore button-fly Levis jeans with the fly cut off; it stands alongside very special, iconic films that unpacked family life and everyday (male) heroes like The World According to Garp and avoids all the many cliches of stale thrillers that begin with a knock on the door and a disarming smile and break our hearts, reliably, again.

Tully is now available on digital download and will be released on Blue – ray and DVD on July 31.