Film reviews: Tully | Lean On Pete | The Strangers: Prey At Night

Charlize Theron offers a poignant and honest portrait of parenthood in Tully, while Charlie Plummer shines as a troubled teen in Lean on Pete, a heartbreaking story of hardship and hope

Charlize Theron stars as Marlo in Tully
Charlize Theron stars as Marlo in Tully

Tully (15) ****

Lean on Pete (15) ****

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The Strangers: Prey at Night (15) **

As filmmakers, screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman bring out the best in each other. Both Juno and Young Adult were beautifully wrought and acerbically funny coming-of-age comedies that were unashamedly smart and true to their idiosyncratic characters, be they pregnant high school students or bipolar YA authors.

But of late, Reitman has been floundering, turning in lachrymose melodramas such as Labour Day and Men, Women and Children that miss the sharpness of Cody’s voice or the satirical punch of his earlier solo efforts such as Up in the Air and Thank You For Smoking.

By contrast, Cody’s last script, Ricki and the Flash, found a sympathetic interpreter in the late, great Jonathan Demme, but even he and Meryl Streep couldn’t capture her big heart-on-sleeve moments with the same cringe-free confidence as Reitman. They’re yin and yang creators in other words – and within the opening minutes of their latest collaboration, Tully, whatever cinematic alchemy they have going on is immediately evident as we’re plunged into the stressed-out world of Marlo, a soon-to-be mum of three played with unvarnished authenticity by Charlize Theron.

With a safe but somewhat tuned-out husband (Ron Livingston) and a middle child with yet-to-be-diagnosed behavioural problems, Marlo already has her hands full without another baby to look after. And yet she’s still reluctant to accept help from her wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) when he offers to hire a night nanny to ease the burden of the first few sleep-deprived months. That all changes after a few weeks of exhausting routine. Giving in, she calls Tully (Mackenzie Davies), a 26-year-old wonder who’s there to look after her as much as her new daughter. At first Marlo doesn’t know what to make of her – her wisdom, her youthful optimism, her flat stomach and her ability to cook cupcakes and degrease the floors throw her for a loop. But before long they’re bonding over reality shows and kitchen table confessionals, Tully’s kindness making her feel somehow whole again amid the everyday chaos of modern family life where the quiet despair of motherhood is too easily ignored.

Theron tops her performance in Young Adult here in an even trickier role, one that takes a flamethrower to the idealised vision of parenthood commonly found in movies while sensitively exploring the mental health issues that can accompany it. It helps that Cody feeds her some terrific dialogue. “Do I have a kid or a f***ing ukulele?” she snaps when a teacher describes her problem son as “quirky” – a line that might as well double as Cody’s critique of the reductive commentary surrounding Juno. But Reitman also handles the more surprising story turns with a lightness of touch that might at first leave you questioning the film’s effectiveness, but in retrospect feels like a smart way to symbolically replicate what Marlo is going through over the course of the movie. Great stuff.

45 Years director Andrew Haigh makes an auspicious American debut with Lean on Pete, a low-key drama about a troubled teen (played by Charlie Plummer) who bonds with a past-its-prime racehorse. More Kes than Black Beauty, it’s a heartbreaking story of hardship and hope that sees 15-year-old Charley (Plummer) fall through the cracks as his transient life with his father comes to a violent end. He makes friends initially with abrasive but kind-hearted racetrack veteran Del (Steve Buscemi) who hires him as a stable boy, which is where he befriends the eponymous steed.

An empathetic teen, Charley is devoid of the guile kids in his situation really need to survive, but in the horse he finds a crutch that gives him the support he needs – even as events force him to escape with his equine friend and hit the road. It’s an emotionally complex film, economically scripted and full of delicately crafted performances (including Chloë Sevigny as a female jockey and a fearsome, against-type-turn from the normally lovable Steve Zahn). Plummer (last seen as the kidnapped John Paul Getty III in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World) is magnificent in the lead, intuitive and naturalistic, exuding quiet resilience as the reality of his character’s worsening situation dawns on him. As a director, Haigh also demonstrates his continued mastery of his craft, following here in the grand tradition of US-bound Euro auteurs like Wim Wenders by delivering an outsider’s portrait of America that’s fully attuned to both the mythic grandeur and the harsh realities of life in a country where wide-open spaces belie the high cost of freedom.

A belated attempt to turn 2008’s home-invasion hit The Strangers into a viable franchise, The Strangers: Prey at Night plays more like a cash-in on Stranger Things. Kicking off with Kim Wilde on the soundtrack and ironically masked killers descending upon another unsuspecting household, the film continues the retro vibe with a credit sequence that pays predictable homage to John Carpenter and various video-nasty era slasher films. All of which might make sense if the film was either set in the 1980s or using these touchstones to offer some kind of contemporary commentary on the culture-choking effect of always looking back. But it’s not. Indeed, the new film’s Brit director, Johannes Roberts, seems more interested in soundtracking cool kills with Bonnie Tyler songs than using horror tropes to serve up subversive social commentary. ■