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Small-scale pleasures make overlooked film worthwhile

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

“Tully” is an easy movie to overlook.

The low-budget, independent film has no brand-name actors. A slice of farming-family life set in rural Nebraska, the film hardly aims at the broad moviegoing public. And in fact, “Tully” nearly did get almost completely overlooked. Released on the festival circuit in 1999 as “The Truth About Tully,” the film didn’t get a broader release until last year.

Those who have seen “Tully,” however, tend to find the film’s small-scale pleasures. When it was screened by Aspen Filmfest back in 1999, it earned the Audience Favorite Feature award. The following year, it earned the Critics Prize for both Best Film and Best Director at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. More recently, it won Best Feature and Best Screenplay nominations from the 2003 Independent Spirit Awards.

“Tully,” which is currently on a tour of screenings in selected cities, will be presented by Aspen Filmfest today and tomorrow. Today’s screening is at 7 p.m. at the Springs Theatre in Glenwood Springs. Tomorrow’s screenings, 5:15 p.m. and 7 p.m., will be at the Isis Theatre in Aspen.

“Tully” is a small movie in almost every regard. The film, directed by Hilary Birmingham and based on the Tom McNeal short story “What Happened to Tully,” centers around the members of the Coates family: Tully Sr. and his sons, Tully Jr. and Earl.

The patriarch, played by Bob Burrus, is emblematic of the film: his face is deeply lined from a combination of age, farm work, financial troubles, and marital misfortune. He is taciturn in the extreme, yet the local grocery store owner can’t help but be charmed by his silent good nature.

The film has two focuses, which Birmingham knits together as one. One is the loves of the Coatses. Tully Sr. seems still to be reeling, even 15 years later, from the absence of the wife he adored. Younger son Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald) is gentle and shy; his friendship with Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson), a local girl studying to be a veterinarian, seems to highlight how difficult romance is for him.

Tully Jr. has the opposite problem. Handsome and reckless, Tully Jr. has women almost literally falling at his feet, and he takes romance and sex for granted. He alternates without thought between April (Catherine Kellner), the hot stripper who uses him as a sex toy, and the earthy, freckle-faced Ella, who couldn’t be more the opposite of April, and various other available women. Tully Jr. is mindless of the damage incurred by his wandering lust, or maybe he just doesn’t care.

The other side of “Tully” is the similarly dysfunctional workings within the Coates family. The brothers are close, but Tully Jr. can be as hurtful towards Earl as he is toward his sex-mates: the film opens with the two brothers horsing around, until Tully gives his brother a shiner by tossing rocks at him. While Earl and Tully Sr. are on decent, if quiet, terms, Tully Jr.’s attitude toward his namesake is one of constant, low-level seething, which explodes into confrontation at provocations big and small. Of the smaller variety are the son’s careless dalliances with women.

Of the larger sort is the family’s unexpected financial woes. The source of those money problems won’t be revealed here; it would give away too much of the story. But the source of those problems, once exposed, becomes the impetus for Tully Jr. to re-examine his ways. This is done with small, slow steps; thankfully, Birmingham doesn’t have a soap opera mentality.

Apart from its story, “Tully” reveals the contemporary rural life without overdramatizing its appeal. There are scenes of secret swimming holes, the jukebox beer joint and local movie house where virtually all social life happens. And there are cars that serve more of a purpose than the daily commute: cars that people work on, have sex in, and use as recliners during the beer-drinking hours.


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