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TULLY
by Howard Schumann

Based on a short story by O. Henry prize-winning author Tom McNeal, Tully, by first-time director Hilary Birmingham, is a subtle portrait, set in a sleepy farm community somewhere in Nebraska, of a family whose past shows up without warning, shattering the trust and unity that had been built over the years. Originally called The Truth About Tully, the film won praise at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival, but lost several distributors to bankruptcy and had to wait two years until it achieved a limited release last November. Its current release on DVD gives us a chance to see what we've missed.

Rancher Tully Coates, Sr. (Bob Burrus) mourns the death of his wife while struggling to raise two sons and keep up his farm. Coates keeps a lid on his feelings, and no one suspects the powerful secrets he has hidden. Burrus is perfect as the weathered old farmer who has forgotten how to enjoy life and only smiles at Claire (Natalie Canerday), the clerk at the local convenience store. His two sons are very different, but both are good hearted. Tully Jr. (Anson Mount) is a macho ladies' man who seems unwilling to make commitments, content to skim along on the surface of life. His brother Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald) is withdrawn and shy with girls, a movie buff who spends his days going to the cinema or preparing his steer for the County Fair.

Into this mix comes Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson), just home from college to do an internship as a veterinarian in a local hospital. She hangs out with Earl, but wants to be friends with Tully. Nicholson's performance is amazing, bringing an intense authenticity to her role. Tully, meanwhile, is pursuing April (Catherine Kellner), a stripper who refers to what she does as burlesque but senses the possibility of something more than friendship with Ella.

There is not much dialogue, but the action does not require much. When feelings become troublesome, each escapes to their own place where they can be alone. Ella goes to a swimming hole, Earl goes to the movies, and the father parks his truck and downs a six-pack. When bits and pieces of a family secret begin to be revealed and the farm is threatened with foreclosure, events force Tully to face the realities that the term "coming-of-age" implies. The film moves at a languid pace for most of the time but builds toward an emotional climax, as the lazy summer is jarred by an unexpected event, changing lives forever.

The people in Tully are not the small town yokels of movie clichés. They are smart and sensitive, and not the least bit cool or cynical. Probably too wholesome for many who prefer their role models to be a bit more jaded, these people talk to each other with dignity and respect, and I cared about them. In lesser hands, Tully could have become the stuff of soap opera, yet guided by Birmingham's sure direction, it goes straight to the heart.

We don't hear much about Swiss film, but Alain Tanner (La Salamandre, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the year 2000) was once the brightest light in the New Swiss Cinema, a movement that owed its allegiance to Brecht, Bresson, and the French New Wave. Considered one of the best of his later works, Messidor (1979) is an original, unpredictable, and disturbing film about two alienated young women in search of freedom from society. The film, in its poetic sweep, is reminiscent of Terrence Malick's Badlands and could have been a prototype for Thelma and Louise.

Two girls, Jeanne (Clémentine Amouroux), a history student from Geneva, and Marie (Catherine Rétoré), a store clerk from Moudon in France, go on the road together with very little money and no specific destination. Without context or structure to their lives, they invent a game of trying to see who can survive the longest without money, and the result is self-destructive. The girls come from very different backgrounds, but seem to be attracted to each other and share a feeling of alienation. They meet while hitchhiking. Jeanne says she is trying to escape from the noise of the city, while Marie is returning home after visiting her father in Lausanne. We learn nothing about their lives before they meet; parents, friends, or school are barely mentioned. When Marie invites Jeanne to go on a ten-mile walk to her home, they decide to sleep in the woods. The next morning, instead of going home, they embark on a hitchhiking odyssey through the Swiss countryside.

Through repetition of car rides with their meaningless conversations, contrasted with the lovely Swiss village and alpine scenery, the film conveys the impression that we are all in a dreamlike state of "walking going nowhere" on a landscape that has surface beauty but no real substance. Their adventure turns grim when Marie smashes a rock into the side of the head of an assailant to thwart an attempted rape. To protect themselves in the future, they steal a gun from the glove compartment of a Swiss Army officer. When Marie asks, "Where are we headed"? Jeanne replies, "The usual: straight-ahead." To no apparent end they go straight ahead, engaging in haphazard, unmotivated acts that defy society's rules. They have sex together, sleep in barns, steal food, panhandle, and threaten people with their gun. Soon, their description is broadcast on a popular TV program. When they realize that the police are pursuing them, their quest takes on an air of quiet desperation.

Messidor is a haunting personal film that authentically captures a mood of ennui. What was their life really about? Their conversation offers few insights, and it is not clear whether or not Tanner regards his protagonists with scorn or is simply saying that if you want to live outside of society's rules, you must understand the limits of freedom. When asked what their game is, Jeanne declares, "It is moving through empty spaces." "All people look alike," she says, "as if they didn't really exist." When the girls arrive in a typical Swiss village they sit in a park and look at people passing. Marie asks, "What do these people do? Where are they going? We'll never know. That's what's so maddening. We'll never know." What led these two intelligent young women to undertake a self-destructive odyssey? Since they hardly talk about their lives, their thoughts or their feelings, we'll never know. That's what's maddening. We'll never know.


©2003 Howard Schumann
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