A three-year veteran of the film-festival circuit that's only now seeing release, "Tully" could just as easily be the filmed accompaniment to any of John Mellencamp's albums of the mid-1980s. Set in the sleepy rural hamlet of Great Falls, Neb., the picture captures the muted sensations of a social milieu in which a trip to the swimmin' hole qualifies as a big day out and screwing on the hood of a car is a viable form of courtship.
Knowing a lot about the latter is Tully Coates (Anson Mount), a footloose young fellow whose good looks provide endless, easily procured distraction from the mundanity of his existence. Tully's mama is long since out of the picture, and her absence has reduced his farmer father, Tully Sr. (Bob Burrus) to a hollow-eyed member of the walking dead. Following in the old man's burned-out footsteps seems the best prize that life holds for Tully and his younger brother, Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald) -- that is, until a hidden debt of $300,000 rolls in, threatening their farm with foreclosure.
A dark secret from his dad's past is having its evil way with Tully's future. Yet his fate might not be entirely awful if he continues to seek solace in Ella (Julianne Nicholson), a bony, heavily freckled sprite of a girl who's stirring something in him he's slow to recognize: genuine feeling.
That basic framework takes us a good hour or so into "Tully;" it's one of those movies that thinks the only way to properly represent its characters' pokily paced lives is to be pokey-paced itself. Based on the short story "What Happened to Tully" by Tom McNeal, the film deserves adjectives like "honest" and "accurate" more than plaudits like "exquisite." First-time director Hilary Birmingham (she also co-wrote the script) has a thing or two to learn about continuity: Witness a scene in which Mount's Tully goes from slurry drunk to sober as a judge, right in time for a meaningful dialogue with sibling Earl.
Still, it's a promising debut made even better by an impressive bunch of actors. Catherine Kellner brings a perfect aura of desperation to her role as one of Tully's cartop dalliances, a stripper with deep-seated control issues. The breakout player though, is Nicholson (TV's "Presidio Med"), whose Ella is instantly recognizable as the sort of girl smart fellas should fall for, but seldom do. Within a few short lines of dialogue, the actress firmly establishes her character -- and reveals herself as a talent to watch.