Secrets and Lies
The road to a theatrical run has been long and ill-starred for Hilary Birmingham’s Tully. Just over two years ago, the movie made the festival rounds, winning praise and eventually a distributor at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival. Two aborted deals and a title change later, the movie finally crawls into limited release, delayed but hardly diminished. Chances are Tully will leave as quietly as it appeared. Don’t let hype’s absence fool you: Birmingham’s debut feature is more deserving of attention than half the movies being bandied about for Oscar consideration.
Opening with an image of a sun-splashed farm, Tully immediately flags itself as an unfashionable throwback. The camera settles on a sleepy house in the middle of a Nebraska crop field. It’s home to the Coateses, a family of salt-of-the-earth men who left their native Kansas 15 years earlier to start anew after the death of Mrs. Coates—remembered by all as the resplendent center of their lives. Led by their stolid father (Bob Burrus), Tully Jr. (Anson Mount) and Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald) toil in relative contentment, seemingly unencumbered by the restlessness that small-town types are usually afflicted with in American cinema.
The summer begins auspiciously when Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson), a college grad recently returned home, bikes over one day and hits it off with the boys. Before long, Ella develops a friendship with the shy Earl. Meanwhile, town hunk Tully casually carouses with April (Catherine Kellner), a catty, aging stripper. Eventually, Ella and Tully spin into each other’s orbits, and a tentative attraction develops between the two, to the consternation of the protective Earl.
The semblance of an unnecessary subplot intrudes when Tully Sr. receives a foreclosure notice one day. He finds out that the family owes hundreds of thousands in medical bills for the cancer treatment of a woman who claims to be Mrs. Coates. As is his wont, Tully Sr. keeps all these developments to himself—even as his sons grow ever more suspecting that something is amiss. Inevitably, the past and its secrets come back and unsettle the family’s fragile harmony.
Locating its story of familial disquiet in the locus of the American myth, Tully doesn’t quite go so far as to debunk the idealized heartland. The closest to political it gets may be Tully Sr.‘s vaguely resonant struggle to keep his farm from the clutches of faceless bureaucrats. The prosaic narrative largely shirks the burden—and riches—of a sophisticated subtext. Based on a short story by Tom McNeal, Tully is saddled with an unfortunate skeletons-in-the-closet plot, replete with anticlimactic revelations and ham-handed dustups. Compounding the mustiness is the movie’s coming-of-age flavor—at its worst, Tully can be redolent of Reader’s Digest banality.
For all the reminiscing going on, the movie steers clear of easy profundities. Most memorable when it miniaturizes, Tully establishes a keen sense of season and place. The small-town informality is conveyed unerringly and with grace, as is the lazy feel of a remembered summer—people are always perched on the hood of their car, hanging out on the porch, or taking a dip at the watering hole. By the end of it, you’ll feel nostalgic for a time and place you’ve never experienced.
Just as impressive is Birmingham’s evident respect for her characters. The danger of slice-of-life regional filmmaking has always been the tendency to create caricatures rather than individuals, confirming our preconceived notions about people and place—a sin that other Nebraska-based drama, About Schmidt, has been absolved of by many critics. Their fundamental Midwestern decency notwithstanding, the characters in Tully don’t lapse into tired familiarity. Not for nothing does Ella tell Tully, “I don’t like thinking of people as types. I think it’s lazy.”
It helps that Birmingham elicits strong performances from her leads. While Fitzgerald (a hoot as Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda’s son in Flirting With Disaster) can be too mannered as Earl, Mount conveys Tully’s benign cockiness affectlessly. As the masochistically reticent Tully Sr., Burrus imbues the farmer with the uncomplicated gravity of a man who’s weathered much. The true discovery, however, is Nicholson. Nimble and effortless, her Ella stands as an emblem for the movie’s disarming intelligence.
With its understated visuals and small-scale naturalism, Tully risks being ghettoized as a regional rite-de-passage trifle—earnest, respectful and utterly bland. Modest though this project seems, you’re always reminded of the abiding intelligence and assured touch behind it. When undistracted by the rote creakings of her plot, Birmingham churns out some quietly brilliant passages, as when Ella wipes a smear of dirt from her cheek, oblivious to Tully’s stare, or when she registers mock shock after Tully gives her a tape of her favorite love song. (“Your reputation!” she playfully cries.) A movie about the burnishing effects of memory, Tully is suitably studded with lyrical moments that seem designed to inspire fond recollection.
Perhaps inevitably, the movie will remind some of The Last Picture Show, with its portrait of rural life, Tully Sr.‘s frontier stoicism, and Earl’s frequent visits to the local revival house. Affinities notwithstanding, Tully is not as elegiac as Bogdanovich’s film, nor does it aspire to be. Birmingham ends her movie with a scene of ambiguous acceptance and quiet renewal. Unabashedly unhip, Tully resists mythologizing, but casts a wistful spell anyway.