November 19, 2002

Tully: The past rears its ugly head, once more, in Nebraska


Directed by Hilary Birmingham

Tell Tale Films, 102 Minutes

A great part of the appeal of Tully - a film set on a family farm in Nebraska - is that it documents a dying way of life. While attention to the problems of rural America has largely dissipated since the end of the farm crisis of the early 1980s, we still live in a country where it's become nearly unfeasible to make a living from the land. Family farms go under every day, either from the burden of debt, or simply because parents retire and their children decide to move away. Agriculture is rapidly falling into the hands of commercial farms - massive, corporately controlled operations whose commitment to responsible stewardship, by the way, is dubious at best. There is something of an economic and environmental crisis in rural America, and because the US lacks a self-glorifying cause celebre like France's Jose Bove for our activist contingent to embrace, it's a crisis occurring outside the public eye. So whether they know it or not, the audience for this movie is watching a curiosity, even if historically speaking it's difficult to regard family farming as a curiosity.

Tully isn't primarily a film about the problems of rural America, but they are, however, part of the context. We know that we're in a troubled region when a graduate student, home on summer break, is asked why she would ever want to come back to Nebraska, and when that same character is derisively described as someone who never dreams of leaving town. And, of course, when a farmer gets a notice that a lien has been placed on his property, it's obvious right away that he won't be able to find the money to keep his farm. Dramatizing these small tragedies is not the movie's purpose. Rather, I think that director Hilary Birmingham, who co-wrote the film with Matt Drake, chose to set the film on a family farm because such a setting creates a fierce interdependence amongst the main characters, who exist in unusual proximity. The two title characters in this movie - an aging farmer (Bob Burrus) and his eldest son (Anson Mount) - who share the name Tully, work and live outside of a small Nebraska town along with another son (Glenn Fitzgerald). The elder son is being trained to take over the farm, although his reputation as a small-town womanizer concerns his father, and the son resents his father's unwillingness to include him in decisions. The second son is something of a mystery: more intelligent and more introverted than his older brother, he spends his Saturday night's watching revival screenings at the town's only movie theater, and his days talking with his best friend (Julianne Nicholson), a beautiful veterinarian who has returned home after finishing school. He'd be a likely candidate to leave town for good, but seems to stay out loyalty to his family.

Though she's seen in photographs throughout the movie, the boys' mother is gone; they have always believed that she was killed in a car wreck, but the truth is that she simply walked out on the family long ago - a fact that isn't revealed until halfway through the movie. Her true whereabouts are certainly hinted at when a notice from a collection agency, looking for payment on a series of defaulted medical bills, suddenly arrives. The revelations about their mother, and the fact that the family now faces foreclosure, are facts that the sons are not prepared to deal with. Although they seem to have found their own ways of working around their father's taciturnity, they are both shocked by all that he has kept hidden from them, and indeed by what they have kept hidden from each other.

Usually movies about buried history and lingering wounds are disasters: they're obvious, manipulative, and falsely operatic. Tully, however, was a surprise and an exception. Birmingham and Drake's screenplay is more concerned with the slow process by which people make peace with their loved ones, and not with the histrionic speeches that accompany slights among family members. The screenplay, indeed, is more concerned with what its characters don't say. As such, it avoids two fallacies of pop psychology: first, that people who keep their emotions inside are necessarily uncaring, and second, that the truth, once hidden, becomes destructive. Here's a film that knows that decency can remain unspoken just as often as resentment can, and that secrets can be kept out of regard for someone just as well as they can be kept out of spite. Much to its credit, the movie doesn't try to endorse or condone anyone's actions; it simply tries to explain as much as it can, and it's paced and acted in order to make that possible.

It's hard to resolve a movie that concerns itself with character rather than plot. Birmingham and Drake recognize that it's impossible to present, in a movie that spans only a few weeks, the full nuances of people's inner lives, and the changes that constantly take place in those lives. What we see instead are signs of change: we see the younger son's willingness to stand up to his older brother, we see the older brother's budding relationship with the veterinarian-which marks the first time he's ever cared about a girl,-and a recognition, among all three, of just how much they actually matter to one another. Given our contemporary preoccupation with blame, when we're all supposedly stunted by the thoughtless actions of others, I was happy to find a story in which the characters discovers that other people are better than they thought they were, when what is revealed is not malevolence but goodness, and when even a final, apparently selfish action can have a completely loving motive.

For an independent movie, Tully also has remarkable technical polish. The cinematography is beautiful; the Midwest has rarely looked so good. For a first-time director, Birmingham has arrived with her talent fully formed. The editing and pacing, from scene to scene, is almost flawless. I was disappointed to learn that it took two years and several airings on the Sundance channel for Tully to finally find a distributor. Sometimes stories take a second or third look to really sink in, particularly among the harried film-festival crowd. The wait, however, was worth it.