Marlo is a mother of three at the end of her rope in “Tully,” a sharp, honest, gloves-off comic-drama about the pressures and difficulties of motherhood.

As the overworked, overstressed Marlo, Charlize Theron gives a bold, gutsy, glamour-free performance. The Oscar winner gained 50 pounds to play the role, and she makes a seamless transition into a suburban mother giving her all to keep her family afloat. Theron hasn’t been this good since “Young Adult,” her last teaming with director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody.

“Tully” picks up as Marlo is pregnant with her third child. She has a kindergarten-aged son with behavioral issues — school administrators describe him, frustratingly, as “quirky” — whose arms she brushes at night to keep him calm. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), works long hours and gets into his sweats and plays video games in bed at night. For Marlo, life is a loop of taking care of the kids, making dinner, keeping the house tidy and repeating the cycle the next day.

After Marlo gives birth, her well-to-do brother, Craig (Mark Duplass) offers a solution: A night nanny. She can take care of the newborn at night so Marlo can get some sleep. She can also clean up, bake cupcakes for her kid’s classroom and perform other chores Marlo and her husband have no time to tackle.

Marlo and Drew bristle at the offer — they don’t want to owe Craig anything, or more to the point, have Craig be able to hold something over them — but eventually they fold. The night nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis, “Black Mirror’s” “San Junipero” episode) arrives and instantly forms a bond with Marlo, and helps her take care of all the things stacked up on her plate.

For a while, “Tully” unfolds as an advertisement for the wonders of a night nanny: Look at all she does, look what she’s able to handle! A bill should be written into law giving all overburdened mothers a night nanny to help with their stress, and “Tully” seems to be championing that cause. In that way, the movie gets a bit thin, until its third act when it becomes about much more and takes on a far deeper meaning.

Reitman is at his best when he’s working with Cody — the pair also teamed up on “Juno,” for which Cody won an Oscar — and “Tully” is a return to form, after his disastrous, tone-deaf “Men, Women & Children.” “Tully” gives an unvarnished look at domestic life that is rare in its brutal honesty. Films about motherhood are usually sprinkled with sugar and served with a plate of freshly baked muffins still warm from the oven. This one’s not. And when’s the last time you saw a film about the difficulty of a third child, not a first?

Theron and Davis are magic together, with Davis projecting a warmth that rounds out Theron’s character’s harsher edges. They’re a dynamite team.

And Diablo, known for her snappy dialogue, gives Theron some zingers to play with.

“I feel like an abandoned trash barge,” Marlo says early on, later offering, “my body looks like a relief map for a war-torn country.”

The lines land like truth bombs coming out of the mouth of Theron and in the hands of Reitman’s domestic veracity. “Tully” has no shortage of empathy for its characters, and it respects them too much to let their struggles go unheard.

(313) 222-2284



Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity

Running time: 96 minutes


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