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It says something a little depressing about the state of the American film industry that it’s taken Hilary Birmingham’s quietly ambitious debut, Tully, nearly three years to find its way into theaters. After being snapped up at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000, the movie was waylaid by the collapse of two distributors. It was stalled a third time last year because its original title, The Truth About Tully, was too close for studio comfort to Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie.
After having its title shortened, the film finally began trickling into theaters at the end of last year. Better late than never, as it turns out, because this story of a Nebraska farmer, his two sons, and their family secrets has as much to recommend it as any homegrown indie since Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me. Though not quite as self-assured or accomplished as that 2000 film, Tully shares some of its unhurried pace, unshowy strength, and generous attitude toward emotionally confused characters—especially emotionally confused dark-haired men in their 20s.
Tully takes place over one long, hot, eventful summer on a Nebraska farm run by the all-male Coates family—Tully Sr., the tight-lipped patriarch (Bob Burrus); Tully Jr., the local heartthrob (Anson Mount, who played Britney Spears’ love interest in Crossroads); and his brother, Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald), who’s even quieter than his father and seems, maybe, to be gay until the movie gives him a girlfriend in the third reel. It’s hard to tell what they’re growing on that farm, exactly—there’s one reference to the fact that the beans are coming along nicely—but early on, a car rolls ominously onto the grass by the front door, carrying a man sent to deliver a letter informing Tully Sr. that a lien has been placed on the land.
The letter starts an avalanche of suspicion and revelation that threatens to bury not only the Coates family but also the film. In fact, if Tully has a major fault, it’s the way it relies on too many narrative upheavals, rather than the too few one might expect in this sort of character-driven film. After some of the more dramatic switchbacks—most of them involving the brothers’ dead mother—you might be left wishing that the movie would just straighten out and show the courage of its low-key convictions.
Indeed, Tully works best when it’s simply taking time to explore the quirks of its characters, with their affectless, closed-mouthed sensibility—a sensibility that’s matched almost perfectly by the surrounding landscape. The film’s beauty, though, isn’t restricted to postcard shots of the Great Plains, to sunsets and swimming holes. There’s a scene where the younger Tully first meets April (Catherine Kellner), a stripper (she calls it “burlesque”), one night in the local bar. She likes her beer with a splash of tomato juice, so Tully offers to add the red liquid for her. He takes his time pouring it, and cinematographer John Foster even manages to find a bit of beauty in that gesture, capturing the tiny rose-colored clouds that billow out from the edge of the glass. There’s also a whole group of memorable scenes that take place not in the middle of freshly plowed fields but on the wide hood of Tully Jr.’s Cadillac.
The most frequent visitor to the farm—and one of the women who ends up sharing that hood with baseball-cap-wearing, tractor-driving Lothario Tully—is Ella Smalley (red-haired, freckled Julianne Nicholson). Ella, back in Nebraska after going away for college, has that rare combination of being preternaturally good-willed without showing a shred of naivete. She’s also got a sharp, eccentric eye for detail: When she and Tully go to a local junkyard, she finds some of kind of dilapidated car part that she carries around like a stuffed animal she’s won at the fair; after she catches up to Tully, she raves to him about the “treasures” to be discovered there among the weeds and truck carcasses. And when she sees a boy in the tiny local grocery store taking a stick of deodorant off the shelf and trying to give himself a few free swipes, she just smiles and looks away, as if taking mental notes.
Thanks to the screenplay, which Birmingham co-wrote with Matt Drake, and to Nicholson’s subtle, unflappable performance, Ella emerges as one of the most fascinating and likable female characters to hit the screen in a long time. And though the younger Tully gets more time in front of the camera, Ella stands right at the center of Tully, because her attitude about life and the film’s are one and the same: that there’s way more than enough fascinating detail in one small town—in one small family, even—to keep any careful observer occupied for a lifetime. Or, at the very least, for 102 minutes.
The script could have used one last revision to get rid of lines like Earl’s “You done good by us, Pop” and some of April’s hood-top philosophizing. And a lot of the performances, including Mount’s as Tully Jr., are inconsistent. But in the end, the movie’s intelligence—and, more important, its respect for yours—makes those objections seem petty. So does Birmingham’s terrific direction: Tully is full of little moments that do wonders for the film’s tone and personality, such as when Tully hands Ella the hose to drink from after she bikes over to the house, and when she makes a spit bubble of surprise after he tells her out of the blue that he’s in love with her.
Given all of that, maybe it’s a good thing that Tully is arriving on screens just now. It would be hard to think of a better antidote to the preening would-be epics and star vehicles that Hollywood stuffs theaters with at the tail end of every year. Foremost on the film industry’s list of New Year’s resolutions should be to help more movies like this one find the audiences that are surely out there waiting for them. CP