directed by Hilary Birmingham
(Telltale, 2000)

It's summer in America's heartland, and in Tully, you can nearly smell the crops as they surge forward, nearly feel the evening's exhaustion after a day toiling in the sun.

A small film nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards in 2003, Tully overcomes most of the challenges inherent in simply being a tiny movie on a tight budget.

Anson Mount filmed Tully two years before he came to American teenagers' attention in the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads. Tully was held up in distribution, but now America can meet him in a movie that actually uses some of his acting skill. Mount is Tully Coates Jr., son of a struggling farmer and a general heartbreaker whose understanding of women is woefully lacking. Not that it matters -- he's been able to make the most of being a good-looking fish in a small pond for some time now.

His younger brother, Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald), usually gets the short end of the stick and plays the sensitive type to Tully's love-'em-and-leave-'em ego.

Mom is long dead, so rounding out the family farm is Dad, Tully Coates Sr. (Bob Burrus), a man whose stoic demeanor hides more than one huge, painful secret. Those secrets are going to spill out or get dragged out, and you know they're going to see the light of day whether or not the Coates family can survive the unveiling.

Much of Tully centers on the brothers' relationship and on Earl's friendship with Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson), a woman who could straighten out Tully Jr. in no time if she could overcome her reluctance to tackle reforming a Lothario.

Nicholson has a luminous quality, a combination of fresh-faced practicality and intelligence that can't be lost for long on Tully. Much of Ella's intelligence is muted, you get the feeling, so you're not too distracted from the turmoil of the three Coates men.

But first-time director Hilary Birmingham, who co-wrote Tully with Matt Drake, has a firm grasp on how to make the men's relationships evolve, how to bring the past, jarringly, into the present. Cinematographer John Foster captures the farmland with a skill that shows not only its lushness, but also a spare harshness that has no illusions about farm life and the demands it makes.

Tully is based on a story by Tom McNeal and, ultimately, is a relationship movie: about how friendships are formed, about the relationships forced on you by family, about abdicating responsibility, about forgiveness. And it manages to escape those "farm life" cliches that clunk through many a film-life offering.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 27 December 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.