Sundance review: Michael Tully's 'Septien' is uneasy look at unconventional family
PARK CITY, UT - When I went to Ireland to visit the set of "Your Highness," it was an odd and enjoyable group of people who went with me. There were familiar faces like Devin Faraci and AICN's Quint and JoBlo's Mike Sampson, but there were also some people along who I have never seen on any other set visit. One of those was Michael Tully, who runs the website HammerToNail, which is far more focused on the microbudget DIY world of filmmaking, which made it seem strange that he would join us at first.
Turns out Tully had more of a background as a filmmaker than he originally let on, and it was only later that I saw "Silver Jew," a documentary he made, and learned that he had worked on the early films of David Gordon Green as well. That suddenly made perfect sense, and in his own set report about the film, he admitted to his own unease about the experience. I've since run into Mike at several film festivals where he was working press, writing reviews, running down new movies he was interested in, and I've always enjoyed our conversations, even if I think we approach film in radically different ways.
When they announced the Park City at Midnight lineup this year, I was pleasantly surprised to see his name attached to the film "Septien," which he wrote, directed, and stars in, and when it was chosen as one of the Sundance Selects and picked up by IFC, I requested a chance to see the film before the festival. You'll be able to watch "Septien" at home next week if you order it on VOD as part of the Sundance Selects series, so this is one of the first of this year's Sundance titles that a general audience will have a chance to see.
And I can't wait to read what people make of it.
For me, getting the South right on film is one of those things that only happens on rare occasion. I grew up in Chattanooga and Memphis and I spent much time with family in Nashville and Arkansas and Alabama, and even now, my parents are in North Carolina. The South has been a major part of my life, and there are tactile memories that are difficult to capture on film. The first thing that struck me about "Septien" is that Mike Tully understands the South, and his film captures it in a very real and casual way, getting it right without hammering the point. There are long quiet stretches in the film that are just environmental, and the sound of the cicadas or the feel of sitting on a porch during a quiet summer rain… he gets it just right.
Describing "Septien" sells it short, because it's not a film that depends on narrative twists and turns. There's a story, and a solid one, but Tully and his co-writers Robert Longstreet and Onur Tukel (who also co-star in the film as Tully's brothers) are more interesting in creating a mood of simmering unease, a tension that they draw out as long as possible. Tully, sporting a giant American Taliban beard, plays Cornelius Rawlings, who disappeared 18 years ago. His brothers Ezra (Longstreet) and Amos (Tukel) have carried on without him, but the damage caused by his leaving is inherent in every interaction, every exchange, every empty day. When Con shows up, simply walking in the door one afternoon, they are immediately elated to welcome him home. Con's a blank, though. He won't answer questions. He won't tell them about his time away. He seems to simply assume that he still has a place at the table, a bed to call his own.
Even once he's home, Con is restless. He spends his days hustling money from people in one-on-one basketball or tennis or basically any athletic competition, and he's amazing at all of it. He spends the rest of his time in pursuit of oblivion, wiling to ingest anything from booze to gasoline fumes in an effort to smother the demons that drive him. Ezra and Amos both wrestle with their own broken natures, Ezra through an almost compulsive form of housekeeping and Amos through disturbing, sexually explicit paintings that he rarely shares with others, and it is only once the three of them finally begin to reach out to each other, spurred on by the arrival of a plumber with ties to their past, that they have any hope of healing themselves. The plumber, "Red Rooster" Rippington, is played by Mark Darby Robinson, and he's got his own world of drama involving his unnervingly young wife Savannah, played by Rachel Korine. How he ties in to the history of the Rawlings family is the film's big trump card, and if I have any complaints, it is that "Septien" wraps things up in a way that is almost too quick. The mood and the tension that Tully builds steadily through the film are almost thrown away in the wrap-up, and if the narrative was all that interested me about the film, I would have to dismiss it because of that rush.
But for me, a film like "Septien" is more about voice, and that's where it shines. Tully gets great natural work out of his cast, including himself, and there is such control over the seemingly random nature of the film that I find myself impressed. "Septien" is one of those films like last year's "Dogtooth" that will absolutely resonate with some viewers, but that I would never recommend to others. If you're more interested in how a story is told than the story being told, then there's a good chance "Septien" may play for you the way it did for me. Even now, a few days after seeing it, there are moments and images from the film that stick with me, and I sincerely hope that this is the beginning of a larger career for Tully, finally making his own films, sharing his own voice.
"Septien" will be available as part of the Sundance Selects series as a VOD title next week, so you'll have your own chance to judge.