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Movie review: ‘Tully’ is raw, honest and suprisingly intense

Tully; 94 min; Rated R

By Chris Honoré

for Revels

“Tully” is many things: well-acted, possessing a truly fine ensemble led by Charlize Theron, and a script, written by Diablo Cody (“Juno”) that is smartly brittle with a wide thread of authenticity.

If this film can be characterized as a comedy (as it has been in the trailers), well, it’s a dark comedy, a close-to-the-bone depiction of parenting and motherhood that is raw and honest with not a hint of the Hollywood patina that so often disguises domestic reality.

The opening scenes in act one show a 30-something woman, Marlo (Theron), once a free spirit living in Bushwick, Brooklyn, now married and a denizen of the city’s ’burbs. She’s hugely pregnant, on the cusp of delivery, who already has two children — 8-year-old Sarah, flexible and sweet, and pre-K Jonah, more than a handful, often referred to by his principal as “quirky,” but more likely on the autism spectrum. Marlo already looks a bit frazzled and tired.

While she and her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), are visiting her wealthy brother, Craig, and family, he gives her a phone number/present for a “night nanny.” Marlo is reluctant, resisting a stranger’s intrusion.

Not surprising, soon thereafter, Marlo wakes in the dead of night, water pooling between her legs onto the floor. The baby, named Mia, is ready to make an appearance.

As anticipated, Marlo’s life quickly changes, conveyed in a montage of images: 4 a.m. feedings, dirty diapers, leaky nipples, breast pumps, spilled milk and exhausted naps on the sofa while Mia nurses snugly in her embrace.

Of course, there is Sarah and Jonah who are in need of a lot of this and that; meanwhile, Drew leaves for work early and returns in the evening for dinner, a quick hug all around, and then escapes to their bedroom, where he plays video games. For Marlo, it’s a tsunami of maternal demands that pushes her incrementally to the edge of an emotional precipice.

And it’s during one of those moments where, having picked up the kids from school, with Jonah sitting in the back, kicking her seat, that Marlo, frayed beyond measure, searches in her purse for the number of the “night nanny.”

And thus begins act two.

One evening, while Marlo is nursing Mia on the sofa, the doorbell rings. It’s a young woman who introduces herself as Tully. She seems a bit new age and exudes a mellowness and confidence that disarms Marlo. She soon takes Mia from her arms and insists that she go upstairs and go to sleep. No worries.

And so begins a remarkable relationship between two women that initially takes Marlo by surprise. When she wakes in the morning, thoroughly rested for the first time in months — she tells her husband, while on a walk, smiling, “I can see colors” — she comes downstairs and finds the house clean, Sarah eating her cereal, and a dozen cupcakes on the table. Tully is already gone.

Marlo’s days become a slow-moving montage of Tully arriving each evening, sitting with the baby, explaining that she, Tully, is there not to just take care of Mia but to take care of Marlo. Gradually, Marlo is transformed, remembering once again how to breathe and finding welcomed remnants of who she was … when? A decade ago? Her ennui lifts, their connection deepens, and Tully imparts not just encouragement but wisdom and insights that Marlo may have once known but has long ago forgotten.

All of this leads to act three, which is completely unexpected and is, in its distinctive way, provocatively puzzling and asks the audience to sort events out absent any exposition.

As a narrative, “Tully” is harrowingly honest, engaging, and Marlo a rich and demanding character study, as is Tully for completely different reasons. It’s a film about relationships that is framed by an intensity that surprises, yet is recognizable, its humanity brimming with life.