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In Tully, Charlize Theron plays a mother on the verge of a breakdown. It’s uncomfortably real.

A strung-out woman’s life changes when a night nurse starts showing up.

Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron star in Tully
Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron star in Tully.
Focus Features
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

On its face, Tully is a movie about motherhood. Not the warm, fuzzy parts of motherhood, but the parts where your body gets stretched and pulled out of its former shape, your breasts leak and ache, your house is a wreck, your kids scream for no reason, and you’re so tired that you start screaming too.

But though not all adults have been mothers, most adults will find something to relate to in Tully. Because while there’s no doubt that mothers of small children have a unique claim on physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, another, more universal thread runs through Tully: the fear that in growing older, you are losing a part of your essential self, the you that you used to be.

Winding those two themes together makes Tully a poignant, sometimes painful story about a woman who reaches her breaking point. It’s funny. It’s uncomfortable. And it feels real and lived-in, right to the bone.

Tully is the tale of a woman on the verge of a(nother) breakdown

Tully marks director Jason Reitman’s third collaboration with screenwriter Diablo Cody, following Juno in 2007 and Young Adult in 2011. The Cody-Reitman partnership is interesting in that each of their films feels quite different from the others in tone, but one thing stays consistent: All three of their films feature women struggling with life transitions who could not exactly be called “strong female characters.”

And that’s good — the complexity of these women, and the filmmakers’ willingness to serve up potentially unlikable (but possibly very relatable) female characters to their audience, still feels somehow audacious in 2018. Like them or hate them, the women in a Reitman-Cody movie feel uncommonly familiar.

Charlize Theron in Tully
Charlize Theron in Tully.
Focus Features

In the caustically funny Young Adult, Charlize Theron played a woman determined to relive her high school glory days by returning to her hometown and pilfering her married high school boyfriend. Theron returns for Tully with a typically nuanced performance as Marlo, a heavily pregnant mother of two who lives in the suburbs of New York City with her husband Drew (Ron Livingston). Pregnancy is more exhausting in Marlo’s early 40s than it was when her daughter Sarah was born about eight years earlier. Her kindergartner, Jonah, struggles with a battery of obsessions and fears that his school can’t quite figure out how to handle. Marlo suffered from postpartum depression following his birth.

Marlo and Drew live a fairly typical middle-class life in a house that’s growing more cramped by the day, while her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan), also parents of three, are wealthy and relaxed in their sprawling home. Craig, wanting to ease Marlo’s burden after the birth, gingerly asks his sister if he can “give” her a night nurse as a baby gift. But Marlo doesn’t want that, and he drops the subject.

Through montages, Tully immerses the audience in the blur of life right after the birth of Marlo and Drew’s daughter Mia. It’s easy to understand how exhausted and overwhelmed Marlo feels in the cycle of feeding, changing, passing out on the couch, and doing it all over again.

And this is the point where the title character enters the story, after Marlo nears the snapping point. Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the night nurse who starts showing up at Marlo’s bedtime, seems like a dream. She’s a little odd, but she’s also just what Marlo needed. Suddenly, Marlo can sleep through the night, secure in the knowledge that Tully is looking out for Mia. Tully cleans, and makes cupcakes for Jonah’s class, and becomes a welcome and listening ear for Marlo.

Because it’s not that Marlo doesn’t love her family. She loves Drew. She’s grateful for the life they’ve built together. But as she tells Marlo, it’s not so much that she mourns the loss of the dreams she once had for herself — she just mourns the loss of her old funny, weird, younger self, the one who lived in a loft with her girlfriend in Bushwick and went to concerts at night.

“If I had a dream that didn’t come true, I could at least be pissed at the world,” she tells Marlo. “Instead, I’m just pissed at myself.”

Tully seems like a miracle and a friend, which is why when she suggests to Marlo that they go into the city for a night out, Marlo goes along with it. And that’s when everything changes.

Tully is about motherhood, but it’s also about growing up

That loss, of a younger self facing a bigger world alive with possibilities, is at the heart of Tully, and the biggest reason the film works on a broader scale. Motherhood is the situation, but growing older is the story. And it’s something that everyone has to face, sooner or later.

Nonetheless, the particular details associated with pregnancy and having small children are what make the movie feel authentic. The physical details are well drawn, but it’s the mental health issues that can accompany pregnancy, such as postpartum depression, that drive the story. That aspect of the story has also drawn fire from some who claim that Marlo should get more support and treatment than is depicted in the film.

Charlize Theron in Tully
Charlize Theron in Tully.
Focus Features

Yet part of what makes Tully moving is that Marlo doesn’t get that support — a situation that many new mothers find themselves in, either because women’s mental health issues are still often brushed off as just a “mood” or because resources are scarce. Watching Marlo struggle, you begin to understand a little better what new mothers can face, something the film’s “twist” near the end highlights.

Still, it’s possible that Tully is exactly the kind of movie new mothers don’t need to watch, with its sharp depictions of things that are all too real for some women. And it’s possible that the ending wraps up too quickly, leaving us with big questions about Marlo’s future and her family’s well-being, and how they intend to get there. Healing doesn’t come with the snap of a finger.

But even with these drawbacks, Tully is still a strong depiction of parenthood that also makes for a startling and entertaining movie, one that most people can understand. Marlo isn’t a two-dimensional character, but she thinks she’s been flattened by life. Watching her try to rediscover herself, you get a taste of her desire and her pain and, most of all, who she might be able to be again.

Tully opens in theaters on May 4.