11 January 2003 | mweston
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Tully Coates, Jr. (generally just called "Tully," played by Anson Mount) and his younger brother Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald from "The Sixth Sense") live on a farm in Nebraska with their father, Tully Coates, Sr. (usually called "Mr. Coates"). We first see the brothers in a field goofing off. Earl is hurt when some dirt ends up in his eye, their father is not happy about this *and* that they aren't working, and Tully isn't too upset. This is pretty much standard operating procedure: their father has no sense of humor, Tully gets away with whatever he wants to do, and Earl comes out on the short end of the deal.
The other significant characters are the women. April Reece, who works as a stripper but prefers to call it burlesque, is seeing Tully and would like to make that exclusive. Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson, a bright spot from the last season of "Ally McBeal") is a tomboy friend of Earl's who is sort of interested in Tully but sees how he sleeps around. Tully and Earl's mother is unseen, having left the family long ago, but she is still an important character. And finally, Claire (Natalie Canerday from "Sling Blade"), the grocery store checkout woman, likes Mr. Coates and is probably my favorite character in the film, although it's a small role.
I won't cover the plot, since there are a number of twists along the way. That said, the characters and their interactions are the heart of this film, and if the outcome had been different the film would still have been worth watching. Every so often the acting felt forced to me, although there were also other times when I found the acting to be wonderful and I also gather that most other viewers did not feel the same way.
I saw this on 11/17/2002 at the Camera Cinema Club in Silicon Valley, CA. The director, Hilary Birmingham, was there to answer questions and to apologize repeatedly about the VHS copy that we were forced to watch due to a film print lost in transit. It actually looked substantially better than one would have expected due to the high end digital projector, and I'm told by the club programmer that the picture was only slightly cropped, from 1.66:1 to 1.33:1. The screenplay, which Birmingham helped write, is based on a short (15 page) story which took place over a substantially longer period of time than this film does. Birmingham's background is in literature and documentaries, and she cited "The Last Picture Show," "Badlands," and "Days of Heaven" as influences.
The film was shot in only 24 days, under sometimes difficult circumstances. A few scenes, for example, were shot in the director's parents' garage in Massachusetts in the dead of winter. The heaters were too loud to keep running during shooting, but it was so cold that the set cooled down too fast when the heaters were turned off. Eventually they had to wrap some insulation around the whole garage to keep the heat in. On the positive side, it rained for 14 days straight just before the farm scenes were filmed, but then *didn't* for almost the entire shooting schedule.
The film got distribution quickly, but almost as quickly the distributor went bankrupt. Since the distributor listed the film as an asset, it was held up. And since the distributor was Canadian, the filmmaker had to learn Canadian bankruptcy law in order to get her film back. So this really is a 2000 film that is just now being released.
Given my minor misgivings about the acting and the VHS "print," I would probably give this a lower rating by half a star, which would still make it a film worth seeing. My guess is that on actual film this is a gem well worth seeking out.