A faithful adaptation of Tom McNeal’s 1992 short story, “What Happened to Tully” is a solid and sensible first feature from co-writer/director Hilary Birmingham. Anchored by fine performances, delicate narrative development and an overall tenderness, pic unfolds beautifully despite a few soap opera theatrics. Good festival and critical response will do wonders for the tyro helmer and should propel several of the players into more mainstream projects.
This life-on-the-farm drama is a potent addition to cinema’s recent Midwestern collection — “Boys Don’t Cry,” “The Straight Story” and “Election” were 1999’s heartland faves — and demonstrates that talky doesn’t always mean tedious. For as little action as there is here, there are plenty of emotional jolts, small strengths and some comfortable dialogue that sounds like real conversation.
Plot is fairly routine. Tully Coates Sr. (Bob Burrus) is a reclusive Nebraska rancher who gets by with the help of his two sons. The younger Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald) is slow-witted, shy and sensitive, and Tully Jr. (Anson Mount) is the local heartthrob with a chiseled body and an abundance of women problems.
Their mother’s death years ago has left the Coates siblings with an emptiness they try to conquer in different ways: Earl spends a lot of time at the revival house, and Tully Jr. never gets too close to anyone. His major vice is April Reece (Catherine Kellner), a floozy stripper with a mean jealous streak.
Earl and Tully Jr.’s one common bond is Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson), a smart and even-tempered neighbor who has returned home to intern at a veterinarian’s clinic. Earl maintains a platonic friendship with the redhead, but Tully Jr. becomes emotionally attached, much to everybody’s surprise; she seems too savvy to fall for his womanizing tactics, and he’s not the type to settle down.
The family dynamic is changed forever when several secrets surface. A stranger, Mac MacAvoy (John Diehl), shows up with some disturbing news about Mom, while Tully Sr. comes clean with his not-so-pristine past.
Though the climax is a bit too melodramatic, Birmingham’s treatment is far from standard; scenes play out calmly, and her characters are fully realized. Unlike “The Hi-Lo Country,” “Tully” isn’t just about two young bucks who live for cattle rustling and bar brawls. To Birmingham and co-writer Matt Drake’s credit, the finished product relies as much on warmth as it does on the importance some men place on perpetual machismo.
With a cockiness and charm similar to Hollywood’s best leading men, Mount is stellar as a troubled soul, and his evolution into a conscientious adult is convincing. Supporting cast is also strong, most notably Nicholson, persuasive as the goodhearted lover-to-be, and Burrus as a scared and lonely man whose fate is decided by some alarming circumstances.
Low budget is nicely overcome by d.p. John Foster, who gets to work with some striking countryside in Nebraska, Iowa and Massachusetts, and by Marcelo Zarvos’ affecting score, which neither drowns out nor underplays the steady sentiment.