'Tully' Review: An Astonishing Charlize Theron Performance Anchors One Of The Best Movies Of The Year

Charlize Theron is one of the great living actresses, and Tully is the latest proof. Theron's ability to fully embody and transform into her characters is already well-documented, from her Oscar-winning work in Monster to the fierce Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. Prior to Tully, one of Theron's better, more acidic performances came in the Diablo Cody-written, Jason Reitman-directed Young Adult. Now, the actress, writer, and director have come together for a film that's perhaps slightly less biting but far more resonant in its depiction of the struggles of modern middle-class parenting.

Theron's character Marlo is the mother of two elementary-school-aged children, while also being heavily pregnant with a third child. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is basically the epitome of a Nice Guy: he's friendly, not overly rude or selfish, but also not maybe as present as he should be in part because of his job, especially on the eve of becoming a father yet again. Once Marlo gives birth, the stress of her life mounts to the point where she's almost certainly suffering from post-partum depression. (The phrase is never mentioned in the film, but arguably doesn't have to be.) Her slightly obnoxious, rich brother (Mark Duplass) encourages Marlo to try something new for the third baby: a night nanny, who will keep an eye on the newborn while Marlo gets a full night's sleep for once in years. After some reticence, Marlo gives in and meets the nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), whose youth belies a seemingly bottomless pit of knowledge, wisdom, and surprises.

This story could have unfolded in many different ways; Marlo's initial fear is that letting a stranger into her home at night will engender something akin to the trashy thriller The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. But while Tully throws Marlo slightly off-guard with her treasure trove of random knowledge and blend of hipster clothing mixed with a Mary Poppins-like ability to sooth Marlo and her newborn, there's no moment in Tully that downshifts the third act into some bloody battle. Instead, as with Young Adult, Diablo Cody has crafted a perceptive character study of what it's like to struggle not just to raise a newborn, but to balance that with raising older kids, and feeling like you're doing so on your own. And Theron is the perfect vessel through which to portray this harried mother.

Though it's not quite as strikingly transformative a character as Aileen Wuornos, Marlo comes to life specifically because of how vanity-free Theron is. (At one point, during a moment of frustration at the dinner table, Marlo takes off her shirt in front of her children, revealing her bra and sagging skin. Her eldest child says, without guile, "Mommy, what's wrong with your body?") Even in brief scenes that function as mild character sketches, as when Marlo is out jogging and fails to keep pace with a younger, fitter woman, Theron captures with precision the details that fill out this woman. She gets a couple of enjoyably spiky moments — Marlo's frustration with her kindergarten-age son is amplified by the principal of the school he goes to constantly calling him "quirky" — but most of Theron's work is internal. She communicates as much through subtle facial expressions, throwing a slight glare at Livingston's well-meaning spouse or suffering in silence, as she does through Cody's dialogue.

Davis, too, is quite wonderful here. Tully is (for a number of reasons) fairly enigmatic, yet she's lively enough to make Marlo change her attitude only in a few days. The heart of the film is in the number of scenes just between the two women, with Tully nudging out bits of truth about Marlo's relationship with her kids and husband that the older woman seems wary to admit lest it suggest that her suburban lifestyle is built upon a lie, or is something to be ashamed of. In terms of the direction, Reitman, here and elsewhere, eschews any sense of flashy style, accurately relying on his performers to make those scenes stand out.

It's been just over a decade since Diablo Cody broke out with her Oscar-winning script for Juno, an indie comedy-drama about a character struggling to come to terms with her pregnancy. That film doesn't hold up quite as well now as it did in 2007; comparably, Tully feels like the work of people who have matured in that intervening decade. Many of the details of parenting depicted here are keenly felt and very recognizable, down to the ways in which kids react negatively to loud noises. Tully is the work of older, wiser artists, anchored by a lead performance that's among the very finest of Charlize Theron's career. It's one of the best films of the year.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10