Based on an O. Henry
Prize-winning story by Tom McNeal
, director/co-writer Hilary Birmingham
's feature debut is a straightforward tale of family farmers in the Midwest and, in particular, one young man's emotionally wrenching path to manhood.
Featuring standout performances by several cast members, including Anson Mount
as the title character, "What Happened to Tully" won over audiences and critics at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, which closed April 18, claiming two awards. But the film is perhaps in need of more fine-tuning before it connects significantly with paying audiences. A modest theatrical release seems likely.
There are many good things about "Tully", from the leisurely pace devoid of shock techniques and flashy visuals to the believable characters and dialogue. With a background in documentaries, Birmingham brings a non-Hollywood sensibility to material that might have been more commercialized (with decidedly less-noteworthy results).
However, the forward momentum, particularly during the second half, gets bogged down in one-on-one scenes showcasing the actors' talents. One's fascination with such seemingly genuine characters begins to fade as they face thornier problems of crumbling family dynamics, looming foreclosures and a dark secret with potentially disastrous ramifications.
A tractor driver and all-around farm worker, Tully Coates (Mount) is handsome, rugged and a hit with the girls. Be it the projectionist at the local cinema or a "burlesque"-performing wildcat (Catherine Kellner), Tully has no shortage of candidates for summertime fun in and on top of his car out in the woods. Tully's brother Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald
) is in his shadow, too shy and nervous to approach the girl he's interested in but not such a misfit that he won't eventually find happiness.
Returning for the summer from veterinary school, local girl Ella (Julianne Nicholson
) is good friends with Earl, but from the start it's apparent that she's almost on the same wavelength as Tully. She makes fun of his promiscuous ways and finds amusement when things don't last. "What's it like to drive women crazy?" she asks jokingly. He's not sure if she's another potential conquest or something more serious.
Tully's quiet, introverted father (Bob Burrus
) is grooming him to take over the farm, but there's minor friction over the former's girl trouble and Tully Sr.'s not including his son in decisions. The official story of Tully and Earl's missing mother is that she died 15 years earlier in a car crash, but the truth is something else. When the father is served a foreclosure notice as a result of someone mysteriously running up enormous medical bills, the sad facts start to come out.
Building to several heavily emotional scenes between father and sons, son and son or Tully and Ella, the film takes too long to reach the lovely final shot, but the journey is worth it. Mount ("Boiler Room") is impressive in a meaty role, exuding strength and confidence that should win him ardent fans. The freckled Nicholson ("The Love Letter") is a joy to watch, with her distinct looks and easygoing technique. Burrus ("Southern Comfort") is also superb as a man torn asunder inside. His scenes with Natalie Canerday
("October Sky") as a storekeeper are some of the film's sweetest and most memorable.
Filmed mostly in Nebraska and Iowa with Birmingham and cinematographer John Foster employing many long takes and much indirect lighting, "Tully" is visually satisfying, but the actors and scenery, as well as the dramatic force in several scenes, are undercut by Marcello Zarvos' distractingly routine score.
WHAT HAPPENED TO TULLY
Tell Tale Films
Credits: Director: Hilary Birmingham; Screenwriters: Matt Drake, Hilary Birmingham; Based on a story by: Tom McNeal; Producers: Hilary Birmingham
, Annie Sundberg; Director of photography: John Foster; Production designer: Mark White; Editor: Affonso Goncalves; Costume designer: Christine Vollmer; Music: Marcello Zarvos. Cast: Tully: Anson Mount; Earl: Glenn Fitzgerald; Ella: Julianne Nicholson; Tully Sr.: Bob Burrus; April: Catherine Kellner; Claire: Natalie Canerday
. No MPAA rating. Color/stereo. Running time -- 104 minutes.