While the Avengers team dominates cineplexes for the third time, another familiar gang has assembled for their second outing—a small project that yields disarmingly powerful results. Seven years after director Jason Reitman, writer Diablo Cody, and actress Charlize Theron released their sharp, dyspeptic film Young Adult, the trio returns with Tully (opening May 4), a softer but no less rewarding comedy-drama that takes a forlorn, bleary look at lost youth and all too tangible adulthood. Reitman, whos been a bit in the woods since he made Young Adult, reclaims the casual, humane tone of his best past work, while Cody tells what Im guessing is a pretty personal story with piquant observation and humor.

Theron plays Marlo, a mother of two in her early 40s, with another baby on the way. Shes tired, as most parents are, and has begun to lose the thread of herself. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is some help, but when baby No. 3 is born—a daughter, Mia—its Marlo who has to get up at all hours to nurse the child, alone with her thoughts, surrounded by the clutter of a life she both recognizes and doesnt. Marlos brother (Mark Duplass), slightly concerned and vaguely referencing some past postpartum depression, offers to pay for a night nurse, a nanny who will stay with the baby while Marlo sleeps, gently nudging her awake when its time to breastfeed. Marlo initially balks at the idea, but as stresses mount—particularly those relating to her 5-year-old son, who is neuroatypical—Marlo eventually caves.

Enter Tully, an earthy, winsome twentysomething played by Mackenzie Davis. Like Mary Poppins before her, Tully seems kissed by a bit of magic. In offering counsel to Marlo and quietly tending to household tasks gone unmanaged in the chaos of child-rearing, Tully offers Marlo the chance to regain some sense of herself. She brightens, she practices self-care, shes more attentive to her kids than when she was doing more of the practical parenting herself. Shes a new woman—though getting more sleep, Marlo is having a re-awakening.

Playing all that exhaustion and discomfort (and then invigoration), Theron is terrific. The beginning stretches of the film are pretty hard going, because Theron, and Reitman, painfully articulate Marlos impossible tiredness and increasing claustrophobia. Though much hay has been made about Therons physical transformation, theres no actorly grandstanding going on in Tully. Therons performance is legible and understated, seasoned with little details without being mannered. And shes funny, delivering Codys snark—now smoothed and contoured by age—with a sardonic, but not mean, edge. Davis, soulful and haloed in a faintly dangerous light, is a great complement to Theron. Their chemistry is wary and flirty, a dynamic that takes on a rich resonance as the film whispers to a close.

Tully could easily have just been a movie about the tricky mechanics of raising children, all its imbalance and compromise and unavoidable failures. And it is about that stuff, in a way thats nuanced and fair, and more concerned with socioeconomics than some movies of its ilk are. (Which is to say, at all.) If the film only addressed those subjects, it would still be a fine example of its form, a smart, rueful Parenthood successor.

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But Cody has more on her mind than mere parenting problems. As Tully unfolds, the films rumination extends past sleepless nights to reach a more existential restlessness. The film uses its mom-at-wits-end motif to explore a more broadly relatable anxiety about the ever-mutating shape of life, the slow and imperceptible shifts—caused by both choice and chance—that gradually make and remake our experience of the world. In its most poignant moments, Tully addresses something common among those of us whove found ourselves on the other side of young adulthood. Its the realization that weve woven a narrative for ourselves—consciously or not—whose past is forever irretrievable, that life has happened, that we have changed without noticing, that time has come along and carried us away.

But Tully doesnt miserably wallow in all these thoughts of old selves and everyday losses. Instead it empathetically acknowledges them, offers a warm sigh of understanding (just as Tully might), and then gently urges us on. Ive seen the film twice now, and while I enjoyed it the first time, on second viewing I found it nearly profound. Theres a poeticism to some of Codys writing that may go unnoticed if you dont already know where the film is headed, thematically—which is maybe an accidental irony, that this movie partly about nostalgia should be that much more affecting in a revisiting. Tully is a lot deeper than it initially appears to be, murmuring with philosophical ache while speaking plainly, yet lyrically, about a particular age and circumstance. I like older, wiser Diablo Cody, and hope she and Theron and Reitman will continue with this little life-cycle project, taking us from Young Adult to early middle-age all the way to decrepitude, and decay. And, just maybe, if weve figured it out by then, whatever comes after that.

Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Richard LawsonRichard Lawson is a columnist for Vanity Fair's Hollywood, reviewing film and television and covering entertainment news and gossip. He lives in New York City.

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