What’s harder than beating up a staircase of thugs or leading a dystopian rebellion? Marlo, Charlize Theron’s exhausted mother of three, barely surviving her newborn’s broken nights and son Jonah’s meltdowns, has it tougher than Furiosa and her Atomic Blonde badass combined. In Jason Reitman’s tough, tender dramedy about the dark side of child-raising, a wan, baby-bloated Theron has a Monster-worthy emotional and physical transformation.
Diablo Cody’s wry, sharp-eyed script shows a determined Marlo slowly drowning under the weight of smug in-laws, carping teachers, the probably autistic Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) and the sheer night-and-day slog of mothering. Reitman’s up-close camera and sped-up montages are cunningly immersive, making Marlo’s broken breastfeeding nights feel like Zero Dark Thirty sleep-deprivation torture. So when perky, quirky night-nurse Tully (a glowing Mackenzie Davis) is hired to transform Marlo’s life with cupcakes, house-cleaning, and small-hours girly bonding, it’s a godsend. Or is it?
Reitman has continually pushed dramatic boundaries in his three films with Cody, from hot-button adoption comedy Juno to dark stalker-fest Young Adult. So this skilful character study has shocks skulking in its satire on suburban mommy skirmishes. As Tully becomes Marlo’s chatty, life-changing BFF, the film’s funny, relatable story drops a breadcrumb trail of clues about the unexpected places that mourning your single life can lead to. Its touch is so light that even a startling bedroom role-play scene with Marlo’s amiable, ineffectual husband (Ron Livingston) only suggests more than three’s not always a crowd...
Theron is astonishingly good, giving a subtle, vanity-free performance full of deadpan comedy and emotional truth: “Your twenties are great. Then your thirties come around the corner like a garbage truck at 5am.” But Davis’ funky, manic-pixie dream-nanny (Cody does love a wild-child), sweetly caring where Theron is cynical, gives their partnership real chemistry.
That said, the film’s gentleness, resolutely domestic setting and lack of zingers will wrong-foot anyone who hasn’t seen a Reitman movie since Up in the Air. It’s got the same thoughtful, personal vibe as even his misfires, like social-media melodrama Men, Women and Children. Hence Tully lays out the complexities of motherhood without TV-movie black-and-white morality.
When Marlo and Tully get trashed in a bar, there’s a bathroom break that goes where other films fear to tread. Brace yourself, too, for the jaw-dropper of a twist late on. Audacious but not credibility-defying, it should carry a Psycho-style warning not to spoiler it. Let’s just say that mother’s little helper keeps it all in the family.