There is a subgenre of horror—call it parent paranoia—that takes our natural fears over having children and inflates them into fantastically frightening scenarios (think Rosemary’s Baby or The Babadook). Tully, from screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, who previously worked together on Juno and Young Adult, just gives it to us straight. This isn’t cathartic exaggeration; it captures parental fears as actually experienced. For those who have had a rough go raising kids, Tully might require a trigger warning.
Marlo (Charlize Theron, also of Young Adult) has had a rough go. Already the mother of two, including a challenging son whose autistic tendencies have not yet been diagnosed, she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Off of work for the stretch run, with her well-meaning but largely ineffectual husband (Ron Livingston) preoccupied with his job and video games, Marlo is at the breaking point. With a past bout of postpartum depression hovering over her like gathering clouds, she’s one stubbed toe on a pointy Lego brick from losing it.
After the baby is born, Reitman and editor Stefan Grube capture the precariousness of Marlo’s situation with a montage of baby-monitor alarms, dirty diapers, and infant cries. It’s exasperating, and hardly played for knowing laughs (if anything it resembles the brainwashing scene in A Clockwork Orange.) After a few sleepless weeks, Marlo has a breakdown in the office at her son’s school. It’s then that she decides to accept a baby gift that has been offered by her bourgeois brother (Mark Duplass): a “night nanny” named Tully (Mackenzie Davis). Tully arrives each evening to keep an eye on the baby, only waking Marlo when she needs to nurse.
Theron gives another full-body performance as Marlo; she transforms both her physical features and the way she moves, something she’s done in movies as varied as Monster and Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet the heart of this performance is Marlo’s vacant eyes—that thousand-yard stare that an overwhelmed parent can have. When Tully arrives and Marlo is finally able to get some rest, it’s a relief to see life return to her face.
As for Davis, she makes Tully part turtle dove, part night owl—with a brightness that can’t be dimmed, no matter what the hour. Tully eventually becomes a close friend for Marlo, and it’s here where the movie takes some unexpected turns. By the third act, the magical-realist flourishes we’ve seen, which involve Marlo’s dreams/visions of a mermaid, begin to coalesce toward something concrete. In the process, some of the other imagery—including a shot of Marlo’s kids silhouetted behind the curtains as she sleeps on the couch—take on a creepy air.
Indeed, Tully proves to have a last-minute trick up its sleeve, though it’s not one that pushes the film into straight-up horror. This is a movie confident—and brave—enough to unsettle us with something many people deal with everyday. And in some ways that makes Tully all the scarier.