‘Tully’ a quietly impressive slice of small-town life

Times Staff Writer

“I don’t like thinking of people as types,” says one of the characters in “Tully,” director and co-writer Hilary Birmingham’s impressive debut film. “I think it’s lazy. I believe people can surprise you.”

“Tully” does just that. Its passion for character, its respect for the lives of the people it puts on screen, and its quiet, measured pace make it something of an anomaly in the independent world. It’s a film that does quite nicely without either flashy nihilism or hip-hop angst.

“Tully’s” deliberate speed goes hand in hand with its unmistakable sense of place, its attraction to the rhythms of farm life and the unhurried sensibility of its small-town Nebraska setting.

But don’t mistake “Tully’s” quietness for lack of ambition or nerve. Convincingly acted across the board, it’s a film with a lot on its mind, a story whose crises slowly gain in intensity, gathering like threatening storm clouds on an initially clear horizon.


“Tully’s” screenplay, adapted by Matt Drake and the director from an O. Henry Prize-winning short story by Tom McNeal, deals with young people who arrive all unsuspecting at a crossroads in their lives, who are searching for their place in the order of things while having to come to terms with the past and what the past has made of them.

Just like its characters, “Tully” has had a tough time of it in the world. Originally sold at the Toronto Film Festival in 2000, the film has had to weather the collapse of two companies that tried to release it, and has changed its title from “The Truth About Tully” when Jonathan Demme’s “The Truth About Charlie” materialized at roughly the same moment. But, if anything, the passage of time has made this film seem a scarcer and more valuable commodity.

There are two Tullys in this film, but the one who’s center stage is Tully Coates Jr. Recently out of school and supposed to be helping his father with the family farm, Tully (seductively played by Anson Mount) is more interested in enjoying the company of women. A lot of women.

With his classic good looks and Joe Namath smirk, Tully, much to the chagrin of his sensitive younger brother, Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald), is very much the rural Lothario. He even hooks up with local femme fatale April Reece (a dead-on Catherine Kellner), an exotic dancer with a strong possessive streak.

But although Tully has the smile of someone who thinks he’s got it all, the reverse is true. Not that Tully’s a bad guy (his continual womanizing notwithstanding), but he is more of a naif than he wants to admit. And he has no understanding of the nature of relationships, something that, given his upbringing, is not a surprise.

Both boys have been raised by their hard-nosed father, Tully Coates Sr. (a powerful Bob Burrus), since the day 15 years ago when he told them their mother was dead. The senior Tully looks as if he hasn’t laughed since that day, and, destroyed by the weight of his cares, he has an abrasive, rubbed-raw relationship with his frivolous older son.

Bringing additional and unexpected tensions to this world are a pair of new situations, one financial, the other emotional. Tully Sr. gets a letter saying a lien has been placed on his farm, with a devastating foreclosure the likely result. He has no idea why the lien is there, and the eventual resolution of that mystery involves the unearthing of disturbing family secrets.

More human, and more involving, is the tentative relationship that starts to form between the younger Tully and the only woman in town who seems to be oblivious to his allure, and who in fact says things like “I don’t get it. What the big attraction is is beyond me.”


That would be smart, redheaded Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson in a charming role), a friend of brother Earl’s who’s training to be a veterinarian and who has the most levelheaded attitude of anyone in the picture.

Slowly, warily, because each is definitely not the other’s type, Tully and Ella start to spend more time together. He tells her, “I’m not as dangerous as I look,” and she teases him with an arch “What’s it like to drive women crazy?” But it’s a mark of the film’s sophistication that it’s not clear whether her attitude masks a genuine interest or if Tully’s reflexive pursuit of her is the sign of something more lasting.

Although this is director Birmingham’s first feature (her background includes a stint as director of development for documentary director Barbara Kopple), she has a very sure sense of what she wants out of her cast and the ability to put it on screen. “Tully” may go against the grain of hipness, but that proves to be very much of a blessing.




MPAA rating: No rating.

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter.

Anson Mount ... Tully Coates Jr.


Julianne Nicholson ... Ella Smalley

Glenn Fitzgerald ... Earl Coates

Bob Burrus ... Tully Coates Sr.

Catherine Kellner ... April Reece


A TellTale Films & Small Planet Pictures presentation, released by TellTale Films & Small Planet Pictures. Director Hilary Birmingham. Producers Annie Sundberg, Hilary Birmingham. Screenplay Matt Drake & Hilary Birmingham. Cinematographer John Foster. Editor Affonso Goncalves. Costumes Christine Vollmer. Music Marcelo Zarvos. Production design Mark White. Art director Nathan R. Carlson. Set decorator Bret Davison. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. In limited release.