Earlier this year we had a lovely, gentle female coming-of-age story in Robert J. Siegel’s “Swimming,” with Lauren Ambrose. Now writer-director Hilary Birmingham provides a fine masculine counterpart in “Tully.” Actually, the two small, unassuming pictures share another characteristic: they’re both a couple of years old, and have had to wait for distribution until their young stars have broken out elsewhere. For Ambrose, of course, it was her supporting role in “Six Feet Under.” For Anson Mount, it was his likable turn opposite Britney Spears in “Crossroads.”
But if it took appearing in that mediocre road movie to get this one released, it was certainly worth it. “Tully” is a soft-grained, sometimes painfully slow-moving, but genuinely affecting tale of a hunky Nebraska farm boy who learns that love beats mere lust while confronting a series of family difficulties. If one wanted to be a bit catty, he might describe it as a good version of one of the WB’s domestic dramas. But the emphasis would have to be on the “good.”
Adapted by Birmingham and Matt Drake from a piece by Tom McNeal, the picture has the texture of a good short story, and it moves at an unhurried pace that allows the characters to bloom. Tully Jr. (Mount) is the older son of Tully Coates, Sr. (Bob Burrus), a thin, laconic farmer who’s raised him and his younger, less confident brother Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald) since the death of their mother years before. Junior is a handsome, extroverted ladies’ man who’s taken up with April Reece (Catherine Kellner), a wild, demanding stripper who won’t tolerate his dallying with anybody else. Earl, on the other hand, is a shy kid who spends most of his time tending his prize livestock or sitting through old movies in the local theater. The tranquil, if occasionally tense, relationship among father and sons is altered by two events. One is the return home of a neighbor girl, Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson), a geeky sort to whom Tully Jr. curiously attracted despite (or because of) her resistance to his advances. The other is the arrival of a guy (John Diehl) who brings word of a secret from Tully Sr.’s past–one that will change the family dynamic forever and threaten their ownership of the farm.
One could certainly criticize “Tully” for some of its narrative contrivances, which have distinctly soapoperatic overtones, and for a denouement that takes a rather heavy-handed turn to resolve things on a sad but hopeful note. One could also complain that at times its deliberation threatens to become simple lethargy. But as a whole the portrait it draws of a young man’s maturation has a rare honesty and straightforwardness. Mount is impressively natural and convincing as Tully Jr., avoiding overemoting even in a drunk scene in the final act and using stillness to good effect. He’s matched by Burrus, whose halting, precise delivery captures midwestern taciturnity as well as has ever been done on film; Burrus’s craggy integrity calls the late Richard Farnsworth to mind in certain respects, though this character lacks the bursts of humor that Farnsworth’s usually showed. (The farmer does share a few gently affectionate moments with a local store owner played by Natalie Canerday, though.) Fitzgerald is a trifle fussy as Earl, but the flaws in his performance stand out only against the high standards set by Mount and Burrus; and Nicholson captures Ella’s uncertainty and longing with considerable skill. The supporting cast is strong right down the line.
The film catches the mood of mid-America with a light, unforced touch. Visually it’s a simple but evocative piece, with fine cinematography by John Foster and an unobtrusive score from Marcelo Zarvos. The technical contributions dovetail nicely with Birmingham’s careful direction and the impressively unshowy performances. “Tully” has a few melodramatic plot twists, but it handles even those with surprising deftness and delicacy. It’s a small character study told with homely finesse, a refreshingly honest and ultimately touching tale of the sort of people usually ignored in contemporary American film. Search it out.