review by Elias Savada, 27 December 2002

This sun-drenched tale of the American Heartland mixes together a "yeah, I know I'm gorgeous" heartthrob, one freckled-face redhead, more than a handful of wonderful performances, and a big wallop of Hallmark. After baking for 102 minutes in a warm, golden Nebraska field of dreams, you find the meal, er film, well-prepared, enjoyable, almost-filling, and with a sweet, hopeful dessert. Like some honky-tonk, Nashville ditty, Tully is a small, amiable walk down the fragile, country road of life. When you're thrown a bad pitch such as the loss of a loved one or a pending foreclosure (I'll leave the rhyming to you), you either duck or get winged. And all the men in the Coates family have a handful of secret curve balls tossed their way. Director and co-writer Hilary Birmingham's maiden feature, based on a 1992 O. Henry Prize-winning short story by Tom McNeal, is a strong, polished, professional indie effort that bodes well for bigger success. Her subtle direction, unhurried pacing, a fine ability to elicit believable performances from her actors, and an honest script with homegrown dialogue (co-written with Matt Drake) make Tully a keeper.

Twenty-somethings Tully Jr. (City by the Sea's Anson Mount) and his shy, younger brother Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald) live with their purse-lipped stone-face of a father (Bob Burrus). Tully Sr. has kept a tight clamp on the business of running the family farm since the undocumented loss of his wife a decade and a half earlier, and an unexpected $300,000 lien quickly dampens his already stoic demeanor. Even though photos of mom peer out from behind a mirror's edge here and there around the house, she's rarely the topic of discussion among those who were closest to her. Some ghosts are indeed pushing the generations apart.

The lads generally attend to their daily chores. They have their easy-going friends in Great Falls and straightforwardly manufacture their own good, clean fun drinking Budweisers, munching on French Fries, or catching The Trouble with Harry at a Hitchcock retrospective at the town's sole bijou. The semi-introverted yet emotionally secure Earl puts up with his still-maturing brother's casual dalliances with the young fillies he deflowers on the hood of his car. Yet, as each layer of the family's secret past is painfully revealed, the men drift closer together, their protectiveness of each other strengthening. And that's the key to enjoying Tully. It's a painfully simple story that builds strongly on family, friendship, changing relationships, and inner growth.

Keeping company with the family is Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson), a no-nonsense, even-keeled neighbor. She's best friends with Earl and calmly capable of playfully analyzing Tully's womanizing efforts, even joking with him when one such conquest, April Reece (Catherine Kellner), a jealous stripper—or "burlesque" entertainer as she likes to call herself—takes some artistic license with Tully's Cadillac as punishment for dipping his wick in one too many wells. IMHO, Nicholson, best known for her television roles in The Others, Ally McBeal, and Presidio Med, is poised for stardom. Her acting ability notwithstanding, if I had a nickel for every one of her lovable freckles that run her skinny 5'9" frame, I'd be a millionaire. Of course, we're all richer for her fine, sensitive performance as the girl next door, the young earth-mom, and the tender core that makes the emotional journey of Tully such a joyful ride.

Natalie Canerday also gets high marks in her role as the comically coy Claire, a kind-hearted grocery clerk enamored of the much older Tully, Sr. She could have easily been plucked from a Mike Leigh film, with her brief appearances quietly lifting the sullen widower out of a years-long depression.

Technically, this low-budget entry has more going for it than the fine cast and direction. John Foster's cinematography captures the warmth of the landscape (with filming spanning Nebraska, Iowa, and the director's home state of Massachusetts), while Marcelo Zavos adds a splendid, understated score.

The film, originally shown at several film festivals more than two years ago under the title The Truth About Tully has since been nominated for four Independent Spirit awards (Best Feature, Screenplay, Supporting Female [Nicholson] and Debut Performance [Burrus]), rechristened (to avoid confusion with that dreadful The Truth About Charlie) and released through  Small Planet Pictures. It opens in Washington at the Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge on January 10. Local readers are advised to mark their calendars now. It'll be a pleasant start to their new year.

Directed by:
Hilary Birmingham

Edward Norton
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Barry Pepper
Rosario Dawson
Anna Paquin
Brian Cox

Written by:
Hilary Birmingham
Matt Drake







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