Peppermint

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One of the most talked-about revenge thrillers of the last decade was a little film you may have heard of called Taken, starring the inimitable Liam Neeson. Now, admittedly, I have never seen Taken.

Let’s get this out of the way: I’ve never seen The Godfather, Taken, or Frozen.

Did we all survive that? Good.

I haven’t seen Taken, but I get the gist. Liam’s offspring is abducted and he spends the film tracking down the abductors and delivering gravelly one-liners. I bring up Taken for two reasons:

  1. Taken director Pierre Morel also directed Peppermint
  2. Everyone I’ve explained the premise of Peppermint to has said some variation of, “Oh, so it’s Taken, but starring a girl.”

I find that second one offensive for reasons that I will spare you unless you ask me directly.

I will tell you that Peppermint is not exactly the same plot as Taken. I can see where one might find similarities, and again — haven’t seen Taken, but I don’t think they’re the same film.

Riley North (Jennifer Garner) is not a soccer mom. She does not maintain the same luxurious lifestyle as her cohorts in the Girl Scout cookie business. She and her husband, Chris (Jeff Hephner) get by on a modest set of means. The apple of Riley’s eye is her daughter, Carly (Cailey Fleming).

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In an effort to get his family out of the financial valley they can’t seem to climb out of, Chris gets involved with some lethally nasty people. When the unsavory persons in question get wind of Chris’s plans to make some cash off of them, they take care of the problem in an ASAP fashion.

In the blink of an eye, Riley has the rug ripped out from under her, leaving her no choice but to survive in an effort to get justice.

While I can see where they were going with this, the actual story — at this point in our country’s history — is mightily tone-deaf. We have a white woman — some would say justifiably — gunning down people of color. Peppermint might be in poor taste at any time, but now seems especially unfortunate.

If we were to put that aside, we’re given the age-old debate: is it okay to break the law if the circumstances warrant the action? If a man steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, is it OK? If a woman kills like 87 people to get justice for her slain husband and daughter, is it OK?

I don’t know the answers, if I’m being honest. Peppermint seems to have every intention of empowering women, but does a very poor job. Instead, it delivers a message — unsettling at best — that at the end of the day, that children are our most precious resource and should be protected at all costs. Under the guise of an action film, Peppermint glamorizes guns and romanticizes murder.

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With everything happening at the border and the immeasurable, seemingly unstoppable gun violence, this is very bad timing. There might’ve been an appropriate time for Peppermint, but I’m not sure when that would ever be.

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Minding the Gap

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I’ve been to Rockford, IL a handful of times in my life. It is not a glamorous place. Neither is McHenry, IL — where I grew up. You live in a bubble of small town existence. That might be why I was so desperate to leave, or maybe it was the memories that I’d be leaving behind. Whatever the reason, I can relate to wanting more.

That felt a bit like one of the themes of Bing Liu’s new documentary, Minding the Gap, which takes place in Rockford. The film focuses on Bing and two friends he’s known since adolescence, Zack and Keire. We are afforded a look into the intimate lives of these three that does not pull any punches.

Zack works as a roofer who is trying to get his GED so that he can provide for his newborn son and girlfriend, Nina. His parents divorced and he was subject to witnessing many an argument.

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Keire lives at home with his mother and siblings. He lands a job as a dishwasher and is eventually able to purchase a car. A smile across his face most of the time, he speaks of his relationship with his late father being turbulent.

Bing lives behind the camera for most of the doc, but gives the audience glimpses behind the curtain of a tumultuous upbringing.

The three have one thing in common: skating.

Minding the Gap is not the first I’ve heard of troubled souls finding solace at a skate park. When someone has a given family that doesn’t really work out, they’ll often build their own from scratch. Feeling like an outcast has a habit of gravitating one towards others who feel similarly. The bonds formed in that time and place run deep.

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Bing has created something extraordinary with this movie by remaining steadfast throughout the years, capturing so much of his life with Zack and Keire inside the lens of a camera. It’s profoundly touching to see them grow up and watch their lives unfold.

Happily, we’re able to follow Nina’s story as well. Her presence gives the film depth that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Mainly, my associations with skateboarding before I watched Minding the Gap were from one of my ex-boyfriends who used to drag me to the skate park on Friday nights to watch him and his friends try to break their necks all evening.

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It’s nice to get some fresh perspective on something you once thought was a bit silly as much more extraordinary.

Difficult to watch at times, Minding the Gap is moving and life-affirming. There is something remarkable about a documentary that is capable of inviting you in and submerging you in the lives inside of that film. It would seem that to Director Bing Liu, film is as second-nature to him as skateboarding. It is an extension of who he is. And we are lucky for it.

 

Operation Finale

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I think Indiana Jones said it best with his iconic line, “Nazis, I hate these guys.” In years past, the cinema has given us some gems that are Holocaust-adjacent in nature; films like Inglourious Basterds and Sophie’s Choice in addition to more on-the-nose pictures like Schindler’s List.

These are examples of well-done films that — each, in thair own way — got it right. That’s no small feat when it comes to discussing arguably the worst moment in the history of the world.

These days, oddly enough, we seem to be seeing more Nazi activity in the actual news than we do in the darkness of a movie theater. In this particular retelling of the events that scarred us so irrevocably, we meet Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) — a man who is most well-known for aiding in justice being served for millions.

Still reeling from the loss of his loved ones, Peter is working with the Mossad — Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations — to track down what the man who devised the plans and oversaw the execution The Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley). With the help of fellow Mossad agents Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll), Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov), and his former flame/current doctor, Hanna (Mélanie Laurent), Peter lays the plans to capture and bring to trial the man who took so much from him.

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Finale essentially follows the plotting of the apprehension of Eichmann and the subsequent stress surrounding the imprisonment of a former SSObersturmbannführer in the upstairs of a rented home for the span of about a week.

I hesitate to slander a film centered around such delicate subject matter, but outside of solid performances all around, the film felt a bit stale. The story is compelling, certainly, but the delivery is sorely lacking. It all feels a bit cluttered and disorganized.

While I appreciate the sentiment behind this brand of narrative, Finale just can’t seem to stick the landing. It’s unfortunate, but I feel there is a specific formula to movies like this one, and if it isn’t done just so, it will likely flop. Regrettably, that appears to be the case here.

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Now that I’ve gotten formalities out of the way, I’d like to also comment on something else — the accents in this movie confuse me! Either I don’t understand how accents work, or the filmmakers themselves don’t. It seemed strange to me that Ben Kingsley sounded so British, because Adolf Eichmann was most certainly German. And then Oscar Isaac — playing an Israeli man — sounded as American as my mother who lives in Wisconsin. Maybe I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time, but it was perplexing.

To wrap up, I’ll say this, Operation Finale is a movie I would likely Nazi again. That pun is about as good as the movie itself.

Eighth Grade

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Eighth Grade — and elementary-to-high school in general – is a different experience for everyone. Some reflect on it as a fun time with friends and a little learning in between. Some cringe at the memories and feel it’s all best left behind. Some are seeking therapy 20 years later due to the horrifying circumstances that befell them in those dark, dark ages because tweens are evil monsters sent to destroy your self-worth and stomp out any remaining embers of hopes and dreams.

Which one am I, you ask? I DON’T WANNA TALK ABOUT IT.

I thank the gods for letting me adolesce when I did; the internet didn’t really happen until I was in High School, and even then, it was AOL Instant Messenger and Napster. We didn’t have the tools to hurt one another via Instagram shade or sending nasty DMs on Snapchat that would disappear, absolving the sender of any misdoings.

Don’t get me wrong, kids were still horrible; we just didn’t have all of the avenues to express it the way the youths do today.

Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) through her conclusion of Middle School. Posting to her YouTube channel frequently, Kayla spends her time and energy putting #GoodVibesOnly into the world. The videos she posts are centered around inspiring confidence and well-being in her audience.

Under the watchful eye of dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), Kayla must navigate the choppy waters of ascending from the peak of Middle School to the rocky bottom of the valley in High School. When she’s invited to a pool party by the mother of a girl at school who Kayla is fairly certain doesn’t even like her, She does something I never would have had the guts to do; not only does she show up, she GOES IN THE POOL.

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This movie allows one to reminisce back to the entrance of teen-dom, but puts a modern spin on it. I’ve no clue what it’s like for 8th graders these days. In my mind, it’s still just as it was when I wandered the halls of my middle school. If the films speaks with accuracy — and I presume it does — then it’s kinda like it was for me, but everyone has a laptop and instead of tornado drills, they have school shooter practice.

For the most part, we see Kayla getting involved in things that we wish she wouldn’t. But to say that I didn’t do the same thing when I was her age would be patently false.

Kayla Day loves her technology. There’s something to be said for the gadgets we have and what they can do, and people tend to be pretty divided on the subject. The younger crowd goes wild for a good Instagram story or new Snapchat filter, while the more seasoned kids are iffy at best on our everything thought hitting the ‘net.

In one of many vulnerable moments of the film, Kayla is browsing her crush’s Insta and doing a little practice kissing on her hand. I used to do practice kissing on my hand, but I never had photos of my love interests; I always just had to remember what they looked like until I saw them at school again.

Caught up in the moment, she doesn’t hear when her dad knocks, and throws her beloved, precious iPhone across the room.

Tragedy!

The screen has a spiderweb crack in it when she picks it up. Shortly thereafter she’s toggling apps and a crack in the screen cuts her finger and draws actual blood, but she scrolls right through the pain. In my opinion, a brilliant illustration of how insidious addiction can be.

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Being diagnosed with Acute Anxiety Disorder as a very young age, my heart breaks for Kayla. Humans without some anxiety fixation will likely feel for her just as deeply. Her analogy of always feeling like she’s in line to ride a roller coaster, but never feeling the exhilaration of actually taking the ride resonates profoundly.

Eighth Grade is a loving gut-punch of a film. The R rating of the film could be construed as a hindrance for persons under 18, or a helpful way to get teens to the theater with their parents or guardians.

Bo Burnham came out of nowhere with this movie. Or so it seemed, to me at least. Apologies to Bo if I’m the only person who didn’t know he was working on this. I’d watched his comedy before and if there’s one thing to be said about the guy, it’s that he’s got no shortage of inventiveness and perspective.

A few years younger than I am, Bo seems to have a firm grasp on the world we live in and the problems it’s got. We’re a confused species, placing importance on things that don’t tend to matter in the long run and all but ignoring the stuff that does. That idea is captured here with frightening accuracy.

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My personal interest and appreciation for Eighth Grade comes from a place that I don’t like to go often; the damage sustained from my own time served in Middle School. It stings. Movies like this give me hope! Elsie Fisher does a flawless portrayal of a young woman looking for her place in the world. The only difference I saw between Kayla and my 13-year-old self was that she seemed a lot more courageous than I ever was. Fisher plays Kayla awkwardly in all the best ways.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I checked out Spotify for the soundtrack to the film and was over the moon to see that the composer is a woman! Rare find, but thrilling! Anna Meredith is her name and this score is sublime. I may have cried a little when I saw that. More female composers!

Anyway, to leave you with some advice from Kayla Day, be yourself, put yourself out, and be CONFIDENT! Gucci!

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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I can recall sitting on the carpet in front of our television when I was something like 8-years-old. Flipping through the twelve-ish channels we had, I’d click past it several times before stopping to see what it was; a tiger puppet, a king, a human lady talking to all of them — what in the world was going on?

My mottled adolescent brain had been so thoroughly exhausted by video games and far-too-violent cartoons by the very green age of eight to appreciate the purity going on in that little world of make-believe.

Now, I’ll be honest; we live in a world where — when grown men have a vested interest in children — it’s easy to draw one simple, horrifying conclusion. Looking at Fred Rogers through my adult eyes, it’s as though I am conditioned to believe there was something salacious or unsavory fueling his motives.

That voice saying, “be wary” lives in all of us. It is our natural instinct to be protective or cautious when something or someone seems too good to be true. We’re quick to think that danger is lurking around every corner. It’s not our fault; it’s the world around us. There is evil here.

Mercifully, however, there is also benevolence. Fred Rogers was a living, breathing manifestation of altruism.

After television sets made their way into several homes across the nation, Fred had the opportunity to watch one. On it, he saw people getting hit in the face with pies and falling down for satirical purposes. Rogers thought the content of the shows he saw was doing the medium a disservice.

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He landed a job at NBC, but felt, still, that the quality of shows targeting a younger demographic were essentially a waste and wouldn’t properly educate children.

Not long after his departure from NBC, Rogers began working at WQED — a public television station in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There he would work on a program called The Children’s Corner as a puppeteer. Nearly a decade later, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would become a household favorite, capturing the hearts of children everywhere.

The Neighborhood wasn’t particularly glamorous, but its modesty gave way for something more profound; quality.

Youngsters could relate to what they were seeing and hearing. The far out, often graphic fare offered by many other programs being advertised to the same group that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was just couldn’t give them comparable content.

Fred was angry that adults would allow kids to be mislead by mainstream media. His outrage when he learned of a young boy who was injured by jumping out a window — thinking he could fly if he was wearing his Superman cape — made its own episode of Neighborhood.

The show frequently featured content that you just wouldn’t find elsewhere. It covered topics like war, assassination, and racism in a way that children could comprehend. The show embraced diversity and created an atmosphere where viewers could feel safe.

While the documentary feels like it’s holding back a bit, we’re given a window to the world of Fred Rogers. Audiences are also treated to interviews with good friends of Fred’s — Yo-Yo Ma and François Clemmons — and the woman who knew him most intimately, his wife, Joanne Rogers.

Typically, the more you know about a person, the easier it is to dislike them. That might sound a bit cold-blooded, but, think about it.

The opposite seems to be true in this case. The more you learn about Mister Rogers, the more you love the guy. His empathetic, earnest nature was palpable. Sadly, it’s the kindest people with the biggest hearts who are let down the hardest by malevolence.

Whether Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood shaped your childhood or not, we could all use a dose of goodness in these turbulent times. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? serves up happy vibes and inconvenient truths in the same package and leaves its viewer feeling thoughtful and, yes, probably a bit teary-eyed.

The world would be a more wholesome place with more people like Fred Rogers and we are better for having had him at all, even if only for a time.

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Hereditary

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If I were to make a list of my favorite movies from the last couple of years or so, I can say with a modicum of certainty that very likely 50% or more of them would be A24 films. The company — founded fairly recently in 2012 — has given the movie-going public mind-benders like The VVitch, Ex Machina, and The Lobster.

Clearly, they have a propensity for leaving an audience breathless.

With a number of inevitably exciting films yet to come in 2018, Hereditary is their freshest nightmare fuel fare.

Following the passing of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette) eulogizes the Graham family matriarch’s very private nature, telling mourners that even disclosing an aggressively modest amount of information about the woman feels like a betrayal.

With two teenaged children at home, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie and her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), work together to maintain normalcy in the house, minus one member.

A miniaturist artist, Annie is struggling to meet a deadline with a client. Her work doubles as a sort of therapy in that we see her professional projects alongside her personal ones; miniature embodiments of the eerie imagery that lives between her ears.

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Parsing her feelings about her late mother, her waxing/waning relationship with her husband, and the lack thereof with her two children, Annie has a lot on her proverbial plate.

It would seem that strange goings-on pile up one after another, though I wouldn’t have called the Graham household terribly “normal” to begin with. Finding camaraderie in a new friend, Annie begins to lose her footing and slip back into unsettling tendencies.

To tell you anything more about the plot of the film would be unfair.

As a person who enjoys the thrill of a good scary movie, Hereditary felt… different. It filled me with a sense of dread from start to finish. Families often have secrets, but this made my own look like the Brady Bunch.

Shapiro and Wolff — as the offspring of a mother who would appear to the naked eye to be totally off the reservation — are perfectly creepy, as children often are. Shapiro was given a role that required her to channel some truly jarring behavior while maintaining the idea that she is, in fact, still a child. A tall order that Shapiro pulls off seemingly effortlessly.

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As Annie’s son and her husband, Wolff and Byrne are the very portrait of a family wrecked by the loss of a loved one who is still living and breathing. Byrne’s crumbling attempts to keep law and order are both heartening and agonizing while we see Collette’s Annie spiral farther into darkness. Her startling, unhinged performance is positively extraordinary.

While the film itself thrives on its ghastly premise, Collette ups the ante and becomes what I imagine the human form of sleep paralysis looks like.

Director Ari Aster’s feature-length debut comes on the heels of several shorts — the first of which is possibly his most well-known — called The Strange Thing About The Johnsons. Aster wrote and directed the film — available on YouTube. While I recommend checking it out to get a decent gauge of Aster’s style, I don’t think that anything can quite prepare one for Hereditary.

Making it to the ending credits was akin, for me, to waking from a nightmare; you’re back in the real world, but it’s gonna take some time to shake what you’ve just experienced.

Or are you still asleep?

A silent theater shuffles out into the hallway and quiet murmurs of, “wow” and “… what?” bounce between audience members. In other words, the film achieves what it sets out to do.

Hereditary goes above and beyond the call of duty for a horror/supernatural/thriller — whatever you want to call it. It is a slow burn that eventually engulfs everything in its path and will likely be discussed for years to come as an example of how to get someone to sleep with all the lights on.

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Deadpool 2

 

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About a year ago, a movie called Hunt for the Wilderpeople came out. It starred veteran actor Sam Neill AKA Dr. Alan “They Do Move in Herds” Grant, and a young man by the name of Julian Dennison.

Julian stole the show as a foster child with a propensity for gangsta’ tendencies. Behind his rough and tumble persona lived a boy who just wanted a home; a family.

I fell for that kid so hard. I would have fictionally adopted Ricky Baker. I would real life adopt Julian Dennison. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need to be adopted, but I’m putting it out there anyway.

Why am I bringing this up? What does this have to do with Deadpool? STAY WITH ME.

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Dennison stars alongside Reynolds in the second installation of this expletive-laden extravaganza. However, reader, for your benefit, this review will be left sparse on details. Deadpool 2 offers much to delight its audience and does so in spectacular fashion.

Only a total bonehead would spoil such a thing.

What I can tell you:

  • Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is back with more four-letter antics.
  • His mission is to protect Russell (Julian Dennison)
  • Their mutual antagonist is Cable (Josh Brolin)
  • Will you see old favorites like Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), Dopinder (Karan Soni), and Vanessa (Morena Baccarin)? YES
  • Will you meet new favorites like Domino (Zazie Beetz), Black Tom Cassidy (Jack Kesy), and Peter (Rob Delaney)? YES
  • Does the movie earn its R rating just like the first one did? YES

What I can’t tell you:

  • EVERYTHING ELSE

For a crass, bloody, f-word of a film, Deadpool 2 has a sentimental side that’ll tug at the heartstrings of even its toughest critic. The first movie had its fair share of sensitivity and tender moments for a film that seemed to be striving for most f-bombs used in a single feature-length motion picture.

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That’s the thing about Deadpool — he’s such a jerk sometimes, but his heart is definitely in the right place. Ryan Reynolds takes care to give this audience exactly what they’re looking for and more.

Speaking as a fan who hasn’t scoured the pages of every comic book ever, I can tell you that this movie is made — with love — for everyone. I, personally, appreciate a film that can balance solid laughs, tears shed, and head-crushing hand-to-hand combat everywhere in between.

In that same vein, there were a couple of references in the film that were only just slightly lost on me. Those are treats for the super fans and well-deserved.

I was very excited to see a writing credit for Reynolds on this film along with his producing credit. I’ve been a fan of his for a while, my favorite being Just Friends. For a long time it seemed as though he was pigeonholed into rom-com roles that didn’t quite fit. It’s wonderful to see him in the role he was born to play. I say this with all of the earnestness at my command — no one else could play Wade Wilson. Deadpool is Ryan Reynolds the same way that Ironman is Robert Downey Jr. and every CGI character ever is Andy Serkis.

It is very much his role.

Director David Leitch is kind of just getting his feet wet with only a few directing credits to his name, but did a bang up job. I think I’d love to see Reynolds direct the third film — should there be one — himself. I think I’d also love to be in on that writer’s room with Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland, Deadpool). I assure there is nothing “lazy” about this writing.

Deadpool 2 is impressively funny, well-written, and spends two hours giving the finger to the fourth wall. It’s everything you’re hoping for and some things you didn’t even know you wanted. I personally can’t wait to see it again, if only for that sweet MTV Unplugged version of Take On Me by a-ha on the butt-kicking soundtrack for the film that is rich, robust, and sometimes has dubstep. And, as your film score fan of the year, Alan Silvestri composed music for Deadpool 2 that covers a wide range of emotions and dynamics.

Go see it. Stay through the credits. Repeat. As Mr. Pool says, “So, from our family to yours, keep your pants dry, your dreams wet, and remember, hugs not drugs.”

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Tully

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As a 30-something woman who is unmarried and childless, Tully looked like playful, middle-aged canon. On first glance, we see a trailer featuring a mom with carry-on luggage under her eyes and a clueless husband who spends his free time playing video games.

Tully tells a tale as old as time; a married couple whose bond exists mainly on a notarized piece of paper. Marlo (Charlize Theron) and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) have three children — a sweet-yet-outspoken young lady, a little boy who is a bit of a loose cannon, and a newborn.

When Marlo is gifted a paid-for nighttime nanny from her well-to-do brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), she’s skeptical. Most new mothers don’t want to leave their babies with acquaintances, much less strangers.

There’s a lot to be said for quality of life when one reaches the point of imminent extinction due to exhaustion, and Marlo quietly caves after a meeting with the principal at her son’s school leaves her examining new education options for him in a mandatory fashion.

Like a sunset after a storm, Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives.

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Though they’ve never met, Marlo and Tully have a very quick familiarity. Tully has a very serene way about her that helps to put Marlo at ease. She’s great with the baby and seems to know Marlo like an old friend.

Drew begins to notice the shift in Marlo and everything turns around for the family. As an audience member, I was forced to wait on the edge of my seat for the other shoe to drop.

There’s more to Tully than meets the eye. Writer Diablo Cody previously penned gems like Juno and Young Adult. At the surface, they appear to be your typical dramedy fare, but her films tend to take the viewer to a place they weren’t expecting to go.

Tully takes a conscientious approach to this genre. It is a bracing interpretation of life and the toll it takes. Director Jason Reitman — who worked with Charlize on Young Adult — presents moviegoers with an authentic on-screen experience, much like what we’ve come to expect from him.

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That said, I have to imagine that Charlize doesn’t take much direction to deliver a sublime performance. Tully is no exception to that and Charlize’s name ought to be mentioned come awards season.

When credits rolled, a woman next to me asked, “Where have I seen Mackenzie Davis before?”

She’s been around for ages and after Tully, I find myself seeking out her entire body of work. Most famously, she starred in what is widely regarded as the most beloved episode of Black Mirror, San Junipero. She also stole the show in the box office flop, That Awkward Moment, and popped up in Blade Runner 2049, as well.

To the naked eye, Tully is a movie for the female demographic, but underneath that, it is such a human film. The flaws that make us people coupled with superbly illustrated insecurities so many of us have a difficult time coming to terms with are a structural entity in this film.

Tully is a relatable and funny flick, but gives its viewer so much and takes so little. One of my favorites of the year so far, Tully is in theaters May 3rd!

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