At the Movies - 'Tully'

The Associated Press

Fall is the red-hot movie season, when top actors and directors compete in a pre-Oscar-nomination marathon, pitching their work to every media outlet on the planet.

It's a rough-and-tumble world, this movie industry, and without A-list stars, glossy magazine coverage or 007 special effects, a movie that took years to make and claimed every penny an independent filmmaker could scrape up could easily come and go without getting a chance to even make a ripple on the culture pond.

"Tully" is one such film, a quiet jewel by first-time director/writer/producer Hilary Birmingham that finds love, longing and heartache in the wide open farmland of Nebraska.

Based on an award-winning short story by Tom McNeal, the movie follows the exploits of Tully Coates Jr. (Anson Mount), a rakishly handsome young farmer who spends more time sowing his oats in local bars than working with his brother and father.

Tully does not dwell on why he flits from woman to woman, but it does not take a degree in psychiatry to figure this one out. He lost his mother at a young age, a blow that trapped his father (Bob Burrus) in an emotional hard-freeze. Consumed with longing, the elder Tully goes about his daily chores in silence, allowing himself one beer a night before seeking the release of a hard-earned sleep.

Rounding out the cast are Tully's gawky younger brother Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald), who raises prize cattle, and a neighbor, Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson), a veterinary student back for the summer to take care of her ailing grandfather.

Unlike other films about rural life, which often focus on young people's desperate desire to leave, those in "Tully" are happy with their town, their swimming hole, their jobs.

No one has any money, but no one is tormented by unattainable desires, either. When one disgruntled lover trashes Tully's car, he goes to the junkyard to find a new (bright yellow) hood. Ella gets where she needs to go on a three-speed bike. Earl's big night out is going to a movie.

A long-held family secret, however, threatens to shatter this idyllic life. Anyone with any knowledge of the U.S. farm crisis of the 1980s can probably predict the film's ending, but it still arrives with a gut-wrenching clunk.

Mount and Nicholson make a fascinating pair, a country boy-womanizer who meets his strong-willed match.

Mount gives Tully a greater depth than his pretty-boy looks would suggest. Nicholson's Ella is lanky, awkward and completely without artifice. As she emerges from a dip at the swimming hole, her freckles leap out of skin so luminous it gives new meaning to the phrase "natural beauty."

Film festivals have loved the movie -- it won "best film" awards in Los Angeles, Aspen and Newport, and was also chosen to show in Toronto, Melbourne and London -- and it's easy to see why.

The photography is beautiful, languidly celebrating the sparse Midwestern landscape -- barns, cows, tools and all. The use of natural light (a must for low-budget filmmakers) gives many scenes a fresh, first-dew-of-morning look, which stands in sharp contrast to the internal anguish of the main characters.

"She used to look at him. The two of them knew the secret of everything that mattered," Ella says of her grandparents.

"Tully" knows what matters -- love and commitment.

Released by Telltale Film & Small Planet Pictures, "Tully" runs 102 minutes. It is unrated but has some mild sexual references.

Three stars out of four.