Tag Archives: B+

TULLY

Producer: Diablo Cody, A.J. Dix, Helen Estabrook, Aaron L. Gilbert, Beth Kono, Mason Novick, Jason Reitman and Charlize Theron
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
Stars: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass, Elaine Tan, Lia Frankland, Asher Miles Fallica and Gameela Wright
Studio: Focus Features

B+

With “Tully,” director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody complete what amounts to a remarkable trilogy about the process of maturation women are destined to traverse in contemporary America. It began in 2007 with “Juno,” their remarkable comedy about teen pregnancy, which did not sidestep the subject’s darkest elements. Then they took on the issue of serious arrested development in 2011’s underappreciated “Young Adult,” with Charlize Theron as a young woman who can’t move on.

The actress now joins with them for a second time for a tale about a thirty-something housewife, already stressed out from dealing with two children, whose life is about to be further complicated by the arrival of a third. Taken together, the movies are an extraordinary exploration of the expectations placed on women in our society, but you can certainly appreciate “Tully” without having seen the others: it’s simply a first-rate comedy-drama about the joys and challenges of motherhood that both provokes and entertains.

Theron is Marlo, a New York suburban mom whose husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is a likable sort with good intentions, but is away at work all day, and while he helps around the house at night, he also spends a good deal of time unwinding with video games. That leaves Marlo, who is in the final stages of pregnancy, to deal with their two children, Sarah (Lia Frankland), a bright eight-year old who’s beginning to doubt herself, and Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) a five-year old with behavioral problems suggesting he might fall on the autism spectrum and causing the principal at the kids’ school to suggest that he might need a special tutor or be better served elsewhere.

It’s in this situation that the already harried Marlo gives birth to Mia and finds herself overwhelmed. Her well-to-do brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers assistance: he will pay for a night nanny to care for the infant so that Marlo can get some sleep, and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan) testifies what a great help that can be with a newborn. Marlo initially resists, but, exhausted, she eventually agrees.

Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a free-spirited twenty-six year old who proves a godsend, not only doing nanny duty but cleaning up the house and baking cupcakes, as well as, as we will see, performing other less conventional functions as well. With Tully providing almost preternatural support, Marlo is transformed into the nearly perfect wife and mother. The bond between the two grows ever stronger, until they decide to go out together one night to Marlo’s old neighborhood in the city, and what follows changes things radically for everyone—including the audience. Only some detours toward the fantastical raise doubts.

Theron, who hasn’t fared all that well since “Adult,” rebounds significantly here, giving a performance that captures the radical changes in Marlo’s personality with great skill. It’s also a fearless turn in purely physical terms, since after her pregnancy Marlo does not suddenly become svelte; she struggles to take off the excess weight, as her effort to keep up with younger joggers demonstrates. It isn’t the first time Theron has gone this route; “Monster” (2004) is the obvious predecessor, and it win her the Oscar. Perhaps she’ll be remembered by the Academy for this film as well.

“Tully” also represents a sharp turnaround for Reitman, whose last two pictures—“Labor Day” and “Men, Women & Children”—were misfires, and for Cody, whose “Ricki and the Flash” wasn’t among her best work. For Davis, on the other hand, it could be the breakthrough she needs, and deserves. She’s mostly bubbly and sweet, but also a bit tart when needed, and adds that touch of uncertainty about the nanny that’s required to keep one guessing about her real motives. She and Theron work splendidly together in the bargain.

The rest of the cast do able work. Livingston makes an amiable if none too capable schlub, and Duplass and Tan contribute sharp portraits of a privileged but not uncaring couple. Frankland and Fallica each have strong scenes as Marlo’s kids, and Gameela Wright contributes an incisive turn as their principal. The technical side of the movie—Eric Steelberg’s cinematography, Anastasia Masaro’s production design, Stefan Grube’s editing—aims at a slightly scruffy, ragged look, which is well suited to Marlo’s less than ideally organized life prior to Tully’s intervention.

This is a return to form for Reitman, Cody and Theron, as well as Davis’ decisive entry into the major leagues. “Tully” might get swamped by the popcorn fare surrounding it, but if so it would be a shame.

LEAN ON PETE

Producer: Tristan Goligher
Director: Andrew Haigh
Writer: Andrew Haigh
Stars: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Zahn, Justin Rain, Lewis Pullman, Bob Olin, Teyah Hartley, Kurt Conroyd, Alison Elliott, Rachel Perrell Fosket, Jason Rouse and Amy Seimetz
Studio: A24 Films

B+

Andrew Haigh’s film takes its title from the Willy Vlautin book from which it was adapted, but also from the name of an over-the-hill quarter horse that is a character in it. The focus, however, is not on the animal, but on a fifteen-year old boy who—in an emotional sense—comes to lean on the horse during a particularly difficult time of his life. The lad, Charley Thompson, is played by Charlie Plummer, and the young actor is the true linchpin of the film, giving a performance of rare insight and dramatic impact.

Charley has just arrived in Portland with his dad Ray (Travis Fimmel); his mother abandoned them years earlier. Ray obviously has great affection for his son, but he’s hardly a responsible father, more interested in shacking up with women like Lynn (Amy Seimetz), a secretary from work who’s separated from her husband, than in caring for the boy.

One day while out running in hopes of making his new school’s track team Charley comes upon a local racetrack where he meets horse owner Del (Steve Buscemi), whom he asks for a job. Del takes the kid on temporarily, and Charley proves such a hard worker that the job becomes permanent. He develops a special attachment to Lean on Pete, a five-year old whose racing days are coming to a close, though jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) warns him not to. She’s right, because while Del likes the kid, he’s a practical guy, and decides to sell the animal to a Mexican slaughterhouse.

It’s not the only loss Charley is faced with. Lynn’s husband comes after Ray one night, and his father winds up severely injured and hospitalized. What follows leads the boy to a fateful decision: he takes off with Lean on Pete to a journey to Wyoming, where he thinks his Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott) might live. He remembers her as the only person who really showed him kindness after his mother’s departure; but she and Ray became estranged, and hadn’t spoken in years.

The trip is a hard one, portrayed as a depressing picaresque. Charley is desperately short of money, and at one point is threatened with jail when he tries to eat and run at a roadside diner. On one occasion he take a job with a Mexican painting crew, only to have his earnings stolen by hop-head Silver (Steve Zahn), who befriends the boy at a soup kitchen and offers him a bed in his trailer—which prompts Charley to take uncharacteristically violent action. On another he finds temporary refuge with a couple of slacker war vets at an isolated cabin, where he shares a poignant conversation about people who have no choices in life with a girl who visits with her abusive grandfather. By the time he reaches Wyoming, Charley is alone and desperate.

Haigh, who treated a marriage in crisis with delicacy and compassion in “45 Years,” deals with the tragic circumstances young Charley must confront in a similarly humane, empathetic fashion. It’s possible to question some of the casting choices—certainly Buscemi isn’t the first actor you’d think of to play a crusty old western horse owner, though he manages to carry it off, nor is Zahn a natural choice as a scummy thief (and he doesn’t fully convince). But Fimmel, once a handsome hunk, is thoroughly persuasive as a shaggy, run-down womanizer, and Sevigny, another odd choice, brings a touching quality to the spunky jockey who befriends Charley, becoming almost a surrogate aunt to the boy. Under Haigh’s sure hand the rest of the supporting cast etch compelling small portraits, and the technical contributions—from cinematographer Magnus Jonck, production designer Ryan Warren Smith, costumer Julie Carnahan, and editor Jonathan Alberts—are all outstanding, as is James Edward Barker’s understated score.

But it’s Plummer who’s essential to the film’s success. In a performance remarkable for its range, he captures every nuance of Charley’s emotional journey, from his early uncertainty with Ray and Del to his heartbreak in the last act and his tearful reaction to a chance at a better life at the close. The young actor was good as John Paul Getty III in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” but here he is truly extraordinary, and he works with Haigh to create as harrowing and unforgettable a portrait of adolescent turmoil as François Truffaut fashioned in “The 400 Blows.” Those who were impressed by the treatment of children on the edge in “The Florida Project” will be equally moved by what Haigh and Plummer have achieved in “Lean on Pete.”