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Mother’s milk – ‘Tully’

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One of the downsides to the bounteous excess of summer blockbuster season is the fact that it’s extremely difficult for a smaller film to gain any real traction. More thoughtful fare can be drowned out by a wave of superheroes, sequels and CGI explosions.

In the case of “Tully,” the latest product of the director/writer partnership of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, that would be a real shame. This weird little funny/sad film is a lovely piece of storytelling that deserves to be seen, a meditation on motherhood that is genuine and bizarre and driven by an outstanding performance from Charlize Theron (who previously teamed with Reitman and Cody on 2011’s “Young Adult”).

Theron plays Marlo, a just-turned-40 woman who is pregnant with her third child and on maternity leave from her HR job with an energy bar company. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston, TV’s “Loudermilk”) works long hours and travels often for his corporate job, leaving Marlo as the primary caregiver for daughter Sarah and son Jonah (Lia Frankland and Asher Miles Fallica, respectively; both in their feature debuts). Jonah is labeled atypical, and so presents another layer in Marlo’s parenting efforts.

Marlo’s wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass, “Creep 2”) and his hipster wife Elyse (Elaine Tan, TV’s “Acquitted”) invite Marlo and her family over for dinner as a pretense for Craig to offer his sister some help in the form of a “night nanny” – basically, someone to come to your house and watch over your newborn while you sleep, waking you only when necessary and allowing new parents (especially moms) to get some actual rest. Marlo initially refuses, but circumstances boil over in her life to the point where she finally decides to give it a try.

Enter Tully.

Tully (Mackenzie Davis, “Blade Runner 2049”) is a free spirit, a woman filled with youthful energy and enthusiasm who also has a remarkable way with the baby. Marlo’s initial reluctance fades away as Tully not only takes care of the infant, but provides Marlo herself with a sympathetic ear. The two grow close very quickly and Marlo begins to pull out of her postpartum funk.

But Tully’s presence was never going to be a permanent thing. And as Marlo’s reliance on her new friend grows, it becomes apparent that that separation – when it comes – is going to be difficult on both sides. All Marlo can hope for is that she’s able to handle the repercussions that follow life with-and-then-without Tully.

This is the third film born of the Reitman/Cody pairing – and it might be the best, even better than their celebrated first collaboration, 2007’s “Juno.” That’s not to denigrate the movies that came before, but there’s a depth to this one that the previous offerings never quite plumb, even as “Tully” manages to hold onto a degree of the quippy irreverence that is Cody’s stock-in-trade. The two work well together, each magnifying the relative strengths of the other. Reitman’s stylistic eye for subtle detail is particularly noteworthy here, for reasons that can’t be fully articulated.

Of course, none of it matters without the exceptional work being done by Charlize Theron. She has somehow remained underrated as an actor even as her fame has exploded and she’s put forth a collection of outstanding, genre-spanning performances in recent years. Her Oscar win was 15 years ago; she’s done nothing but get better since. Her recent pivot to high-end action star has been a revelation, but her work here is impressive in a completely different manner. She finds joy and sadness in seemingly every beat, presenting a full, flawed woman dealing with the stresses of motherhood as best she can. She’s a good woman and a good mom who struggles every day to continue being those things. It’s funny and heartbreaking and marvelous.

A talented ensemble doesn’t hurt either. Davis provides a lovely foil for Theron; the Tully/Marlo dynamic is the emotional center of the narrative. Their dynamic is playful and sincere without ever feeling forced. Davis looks to have stardom in her future. Livingston gives his usual rock-solid performance as Drew; he’s the epitome of the well-meaning but ultimately clueless family man. Duplass is charming as hell, giving Craig just a whiff of mania and creating an energy that is just the tiniest bit jarring in the best possible way. And there’s no need to explore the Livingston/Duplass resemblance – eerie as it is, it has been discussed ad nauseum; throw Kyle Chandler into the mix and then we can talk.

“Tully” isn’t the sort of film you expect to see at the multiplex this time of year. And that’s OK – sometimes you’re looking for something different. And there’s no denying that this movie is different. It’s a quirky, winsome story, unafraid to mix a dash of melancholy in alongside its quick wit. Mothers and mothers-to-be might find some of what they see particularly resonant, but anyone with an appreciation for quality storytelling will find something to like in “Tully.”

[5 out of 5]

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