This movie carries the smell of freshly cut hay. In fact, Nebraska farm and family life in Hilary Birmingham’s naturalistic drama Tully exude the rich tones and emotions of one of John Mellencamp’s better heartland hymns. It is honeyed but honest, melancholy and modest. Tully spoon-feeds us layers of character and story with the pacing of a languid Sunday stroll. And the film finds strength in deceptive simplicity as the waters of discovery deepen and as an invisible undertow of conflict and secrets tugs at the bonds between father and sons, brothers, lovers and friends.
Family snapshots of past good times slide past under the film’s opening credits. Kids play in the snow, open Christmas presents and stand proudly in front of a decorated yule tree. Life feels good here: decent, homey and nurtured. The camera then rises out of a green field to expose the Coates farm where Tully Sr. (Bob Burrus), Tully Jr. (Anson Mount) and younger sibling Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald) live and work. The boys are in that kinetic space between late teens and adulthood now and are having a dirt-clod fight in which Earl takes a shot to the eye.
“Tully,” scolds the father. “How many times do I got to tell you to stop screwing around?” It’s not so much a question as a weary call for order. Tully wrestles with his wild streak throughout the rest of the film as he lives up to his reputation as the local Lothario, experiences romantic love for the first time and struggles with revelations that jar painful memories and cause him to reinterpret others.
“I’m not as dangerous as I look,” Tully tells Ella (Julianne Nicholson), an intelligent, candid girl-next-door who is home for the summer from veterinarian school and pals around with the more compassionate Earl. Ella is not intimidated but is rather wary, and with good reason. Tully’s womanizing and sexual interludes with a stripper (Catherine Kellner) are public knowledge. And Tully is not quite as in tune with the opposite sex as he thinks he is. This is a point Ella readily makes; she knows of a half-dozen girls who happen to despise him.
The story begins to tighten when Tully Sr. is slapped with a mysterious $300,000 lien on his farm. The threatened foreclosure appears to be a clerical mistake at first, and that opens a Pandora’s box of deception and domestic heartache.
Birmingham vividly escorts us to a place flavored with daily-chore lists, grass-choked wrecking yards, bottled Busch six-packs, swimming holes, back-seat and car-hood sex (all suggested and off-screen), diners, farmhouse breakfasts, stables, barns and expansive Midwestern skies. The script she co-wrote with Matt Drake is based on the short story “What Happened to Tully,” by Tom McNeal. It’s full of little, intimate details of life that most of us rarely take time to ponder anymore.
The entire cast is excellent, and the ladies have strong roles. Nicholson is both earthy and radiant as the lass who dispenses love advice to novice romancer Earl (“Nervous? That’s good. That’s how she knows you like her”) and makes observations (“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen your father laugh out loud at a single thing”) that drive the story along. Her independence and zest for life (“I don’t like thinking of people as types. I like thinking people can surprise you”) is contagious. And Kellner has just the right edge of sensuality, coldness and danger as the club dancer who claims the hood of Tully’s car as her private playground. Both roles easily could have slipped into stereotype. Burrus brings an intriguing sense of strength and introspection to the drama at hand. And Mount and Fitzgerald are pitch-perfect as the respectively wild and mild Coates brothers.
Tully is full of affecting, quiet moments, such as a pause in a cow pasture at night and exchanges of dialogue between two or three people that remind us that life is often not as simple or obvious as it seems. At one point, Ella and Tully talk about his past conquests, and she says she can name a half-dozen women who despise him. He asks if the list includes her. “No,” she says. “Then they don’t count,” he says. “Everyone counts,” is her answer—gift-wrapping a theme of the film for both Tully and the audience.