—Spoilers ahead. As always, don’t say you weren’t warned.—
We live in an immensely spoilerphobic culture. Somewhere along the way, we became a people that has confused a shocking twist for meaningful plot development. Sometimes it can be; other times, you’re M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan’s relationship with twists is such that those who have never seen so much as a frame of one of his films know that to Shyamalan your audience is to provide them with a wham-worthy, out of nowhere twist. Mileage varies immensely on the effectiveness of his twists, but the downside to watching a Shyamalan film after a 20+ year career is that a twist is always expected now. There’s no fun in Shyamalan’s twists, because that’s his gimmick.
They come in sharp contrast to a filmmaker like Jason Reitman, whose career thus far has consisted of well crafted yet relatively straight forward character studies like Juno, Young Adult, or Up in the Air. Reitman has spent almost fifteen years pumping out interesting films about very flawed people coming face to face with their own mistakes and embracing rather than subverting them. His new film, Tully, fits quite well into his filmography.
So what does Tully have to do with Shyamalan? Interestingly enough, a lot. If you expected there to be a twist in Reitman’s latest, the hints are there and obvious all along for you. Whether you pick up on strange character behavior in a relatively grounded story, peculiar camera angles, or even little details like the character names, the information is all there for you, front and center, just like a Shyamalan film.
The most jarring similarity, however, is in much of Tully‘s early goings feeling so much like a horror film. Tully stars Charlize Theron as Marlo, who has recently given birth to her third child and is going through very intense post partum depression, with nobody around her seeming willing or able to help with the stress of being a middle aged mother of three. Many of the early sequences after her daughter’s birth are staged in a nightmarish montage of shots of her baby crying, screaming, knocking over milk, and so on. The sequence goes on for what feels like a few beats too long to really drive home the point that motherhood is actual hell for Marlo. Eventually, her brother offers to pay for a “night nanny” to come and take care of her new child so Marlo can get some honest sleep. That’s when we meet the mysterious Tully, played to perfect manic pixie dream girl fashion by Mackenzie Davis. The two end up becoming friends, but soon, the mystery of who Tully is starts to come into focus.
It’s not immediately clear early on that Tully is Reitman’s most high concept work. Working again with Theron and screenwriter Diablo Cody for the first time since 2013’s Young Adult, Reitman crafts an affecting look at motherhood that pulls just as few of punches as Young Adult did in regards to arrested development. Theron, one of our best living actors, delivers valuably defeated work as the three-time mother stuck wondering what could have been in her life. Marlo is a character that gets to embody many stages of depression, which Theron throws herself into with ease. Mackenzie Davis, perhaps best known for her work on TV in Halt and Catch Fire and her starmaking turn on Black Mirror’s San Junipero episode, is quietly proving herself to be every bit as reliable a presence as her older co-star, matching every sad look Marlo casts with unabashed positivity to counterbalance. The film could not work without the two complementing each other, and the team-up ends up working like gangbusters.
It’s the DNA this film shares with the work of Shyamalan that’s going to make or break this film for most audiences. However, once the shock of the film’s secretly high concept wears off, what’s left is an overly affecting and honest look at motherhood that finds yet another iconic role in Marlo for Charlize Theron. This might be too dramatic for audiences wanting something light hearted and it might be a bit too funny for those who want a drama about parenting. For those who already know what to expect with Jason Reitman, what you’ll find is one of the very best films of the first half of 2018.
Tully is currently playing in theaters. You can find screentimes in Santa Clarita here.