Review: Charlize Theron Delivers Some of Her Best Work in a Magical Tully

To discuss Tully, the new collaboration between screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (the two made Juno and Young Adult previously) is to take away a little bit of its reality-soaked magic. I’m not referring to the classic definition of magical realism; no, Tully’s magic comes from another source, one that I don’t want to reveal, or even hint at, here.

And when I say “magic,” I don’t mean to imply that there’s a supernatural quality to the film. Tully’s magic is more about that life-saving moment when the exact right person walks into your life just when you need them most.

Tully Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Charlize Theron re-teams with Reitman and Cody after Young Adult to play Marlo, a wife and mother of three, who is struggling with the demands of a newborn, a son who is frequently referred to as “quirky” when in fact he’s likely on the spectrum, and a daughter who is not quite old enough to take care of herself or help out with her brothers. Ron Livingston plays her devoted but slightly useless husband, who works very hard but at the end of the day starts playing video games in bed and tunes out the rest of the world, including his exhausted wife.

As a baby present, Marlo’s well-off brother (Mark Duplass) gifts her a night nanny, a woman who slips into your house just as mom is getting ready for bed and tends to the infant’s needs overnight, allowing the parents to get a good night’s sleep. At first Marlo resists calling the number, but after a grueling few days and some disappointing news from her son’s school, she breaks down and reaches out for help.

Then along comes Tully (a vibrant and energetic Mackenzie Davis, from “Halt and Catch Fire” and Blade Runner 2049), a walking encyclopedia of strange and fascinating knowledge who also seems to know exactly what Marlo needs and makes the point of telling her that she’s actually there more for her needs than the baby’s.

After a chance encounter with an old roommate/girlfriend and countless talks with Tully about life and the dreams of her 20s, Margo begins to reflect on her younger years and sees her life today as boring and routine. But Tully sees that lifestyle as the goal—providing stability for your family and your peace of mind. While the film sets itself up as an examination of parenting and marriage, it’s actually a wonderfully honest look at nostalgia for a time that has not only gone by but would be impossible to recapture at one’s current age.

Reitman (who also directed Up in the Air and Labor Day) again allows Theron the room to meet the rest of us on equal footing. There is nary a shred of her often-utilized glamor on display; instead, Marlo is a different type of super-woman, who keeps schedules, diets, routines and even creativity as a staple of her family’s well being. But there are hints (including a mention of something that happened after her last child was born) that her world isn’t as stable as she or we think.

Again, I don’t want to ruin the sometimes seismic shifts that occur in Tully, but they are largely unexpected and redefine everything we’ve seen up to that point. In the end, the movie teaches us that perhaps we need to watch those closest to us more carefully (and that’s not meant in a nefarious way), more for their good than ours.

This is easily some of the finest acting of Theron’s career, and as much as I love her kicking ass and being ice cold in Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, The Fate of the Furious, and, god forbid, The Huntsman: Winter's War, her one-two punch of Young Adult and Tully is the gold standard of her abilities as an actor who can generate empathy while still remaining brutally honest, even abrasive at times. Marlo feels like a real mother, sister and wife who knows how to put on a polite, sweet face when required, but isn’t afraid to take it off to make a point—something she does with her son’s school principal to great effect.

Tully is a straight-forward story that still manages to surprise us and even cut us deeply with reality by the end. And that made me love it even more.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.