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Brent Northup

Tully

At Cinemark

(R)

Grade: A-

For moms looking for a sentiment-free alternative to celebrating Mother’s Day, may I recommend a most unconventional mom movie at the Cinemark.

“Tully” is a probing, cynical and quite philosophical look at the battle some mothers face when they trade idealism for realism.

Marlo is a 30-something mother of two preteens with another one in the oven. Her oldest daughter is 8 years old, but already showing hints of attitude that suggest she’s getting ready for middle school.

Her kindergarten son, a boy with special needs, is prone to uncontrollable temper tantrums.

Jump in the car. Let’s tag along with Mom and the kids.

Mom drives the boy to school, but the main parking lot is full. She explains to the boy they will park in another lot, a decision that sends the boy into a panic. He is sitting behind mom in the SUV and starts kicking her chair and screaming.

Marlo has no choice. She invents a place to park to quiet the boy.

Frazzled, she goes to meet the principal who informs her that she’s got to make new plans for her troubled son. “Maybe he needs one-on-one help,” the administrator suggests. Easy to say, hard to pay. Marlo mutters a few inappropriate things, and marches away.

At home, Marlo has little help from her clueless husband Ron who spends more time playing video games than reading bedtime stories to the kids. Support amounts to: “You OK, honey?”

No, Marlo is not OK. She has a career, but she’s finding “having it all” feels like having nothing. And yet she’s not going to make the “easy” either/or choice. What gets sacrificed is her well-being -- so that others can thrive.

That’s what women often do.

Marlo is reaching her breaking point when Tully, the Night Nanny, arrives. Marlo’s quite well-heeled brother offers to pay for the this not-inexpensive house help -- just to help his sister out.

So what’s a night nanny, you ask? Just like it sounds: a nanny arrives when mom goes to bed and stays until after mom is up and out in the morning. The nanny handles night crying, and even brings the baby to mom for breast feeding. Nanny quietly cleans the house as mom sleeps.

But this 26-year-old night nanny provides one more service: feminist counseling from the millennium generation on how to navigate motherhood -- and marriage.

This is where “Tully” gets really interesting. The conversations are more poetic and philosophical than political. Tully helps Marlo understand that she’s dying inside and gives her the permission -- and the power -- to do something.

But the advice isn’t simplistic like “leave him” or “get angry.”

Instead, Tully acts as a philosophical friend, asking questions and exploring the answers together. Why are you so fundamentally unhappy? Why have you given up sex? What can we do about this?

Tully tries to get Marlo to see all the good she’s doing. Tully explains to Marlo that “being boring” keeps houses alive -- doing daily chores is how we love our children. Yes, repetitive chores are boring, but essential. But it’s also essential that Marlo re-energize her life by getting out, doing things by herself and, most of all, care for herself.

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And, of course, balancing the marriage partnership gets discussed, too.

In philosophical terms, they are discussing the tug and pull between the Kantian duty to be dependable and the Dionysian urge to be fully alive.

The nanny even suggests one provocative strategy designed to reform the husband in ways he will likely embrace. Positive reinforcement is the preferred first option, advises Tully.

Tully is no Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee. She’s a bright free-spirited guardian angel sent to rescue a trapped wife. The crisp cynical writing has an edge that’s quite thought-provoking.

There are submerged layers of lesbian affection here, but that’s not where the story goes. The friendship itself empowers Marlo, as much as a good night’s sleep. Marlo has an intelligent female soul sister on call every night.

The last act of this story of escape from post-partum blues is the weakest. Marlo’s empowerment needed more time and more setbacks to ring completely true. And the climactic “Tully twist” is mind-scrambling.

But I came away truly thankful for a script that sought to illuminate rather than just entertain.

There are topics being explored here that rarely find their way to mainstream movies about families.

“Tully” got made because “Juno” was a hit and so was “Up in the Air.” Jason Reitman gets to take risks because of his track record. And when Charlize Theron signed on, the movie was a “go!”

Sadly, the opening weekend box office was tepid. “Tully” is going to disappear quickly, despite an Oscar-worthy performance by Theron. You may have only one week to catch this in a theater.

I suggest seeing it on Sunday, May 13: Mother’s Day.

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