Laura Linney as Sammy Prescott
Mark Ruffalo as Terry Prescott
Jon Tenney as Bob
Matthew Broderick as Brian
Rory Culkin as Rudy
Written and Directed by
Drama, Indie, Romance
Sundance Film Festival 2000 (Dramatic Competition)–Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan reveals remarkably perceptive observational powers in You Can Count On Me, a sensitive, intimate, enormously touching drama that explores the intricate bond between two adult siblings, orphaned at childhood when their parents are killed in a car accident.
Laura Linney, last seen as Jim Carrey’s wife in The Truman Show, gives an astonishing performance (her most fully-realized to date), as a single mother whose stable small-town life spirals out of control when her brother-drifter, splendidly played by Mark Ruffalo, suddenly reappears. Some of the male roles are not as well developed as the central ones, and Matthew Broderick’s performance is not entirely satisfying, but these are minor flaws when placed against the overall impact of a superbly mounted film, a co-winner of this year’s Sundance grand jury prize and recipient of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Strong critical support and aggressive marketing strategy should help this small-scale pic go beyond the indie movie market.
Not much in Lonergan’s former credits, among them co-scripting the mafia comedy hit, Analyze This, serves as preparation for the nuancely textured narrative and impressive helming of his new movie. Contesting the definition of what constitutes a modern family, Lonergan examines one of the least explored issues in American films: The complex relationship between a sister and her brother.
Indeed, with the exception of Cassavetes’ Love Streams and more recently Benny and Joon, most family movies have centered on male siblings. Over the past decade, numerous indies have taken the allegory of Cain and Abel and applied it to contempo settings, from Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner to Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral to Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, among others.
Lonergan’s yarn boasts the structure of a classic narrative, in which a charismatic irresponsible drifter appears out of nowhere, creating chaos and altering in a radical manner the seemingly quiet and balanced lives of all those he encounters. Ruffalo’s part brings to mind the outsiders played by Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, and William Holden in 50s and 60s mellers, except–and it’s a big exception–that most of these films unfold as romantic dramas with the outsider igniting the latent passions of frustrated, suffocated women living in dormant milieux.
Borrowing some of these familiar threads, Lonergan begins his tale with the unexpected arrival of Terry (Ruffalo) in Scottsville, a beautiful, out-of-the-way town in Upstate New York. A brilliantly written scene, set in a restaurant, brings to the surface the tensions between siblings who have remained close, despite diametrically opposed personalities and vastly different lifestyles.
Sammy’s existence is conditioned by all the securities and limitations of small-town life, here defined by the chores of being a single mom and by the spiritual guidance provided by the church. Married and divorced at a young age, she’s an overprotective mother to her eight-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Sammy conceals from her son any info about his absentee father, but the curious, susceptible boy stubbornly harbors romantic notions about him. Her emotional involvement with Bob (Jon Tenney), a goodhearted but not terribly exciting man, only partially fulfills her needs as a woman.
In contrast, brother Terry (which was Brando’s name in On the Waterfront) leads a troubled nomadic existence, moving from one place to another based on his fear of any type of commitment. He’s depicted as an irresponsible, self-destructive man, with a special penchant for getting involved in fights and being arrested. Leaving a pregnant girlfriend behind, Terry comes home to borrow money.
Essence of drama is in the complex yet intimate friendship that wild Terry strikes with his lonely nephew. Against Sammy’s instructions, Terry takes Rudy to the local bar to play pool, goes fishing with him, and shares secrets with him. Then quite spontaneously, he takes Rudy to his biological father, who lives nearby with another woman. Exchange of slurs leads to physical fight with Rudy sr., who refuses to acknowledge his son, resulting in yet another arrest.
The beauty of Lonergan’s multi-layered script is its subtle depiction of how Terry’s presence inspires his sister to break out of all her dull routines. Sammy throws herself into an adulterous affair with her stiff new bank manager, Brian (Broderick), uses foul language, smokes dope with Terry, and confides in the priest (played by helmer) of her reckless escapades. In brief scenes that have strong cumulative power, director shows variations of and deviations from traditional role-playing as well as role reversals, suggesting that the real child in the family is not Rudy but uncle Terry.
The challenges of navigating family life, without a husband and father figure, are truthfully presented. The film shows how each character, despite efforts to do the right thing, is pushed by external forces beyond their control. As Terry the screw-up gets more in touch with his inner feelings, Sammy, the model of order and stability, loses control and sight of her own life. Refusing to take a moralistic approach, Lonergan allows all of his characters to stumble and then learn the consequences of their lapses in judgment.
The work and sex scenes between Sammy and her boss are schematic and don’t always ring true, and Broderick’s rigid interpretation (the film’s only weak performance) makes things worse. But when the central triangle is center stage, which is most of the time, this deftly observed drama, infused with compassion and humor, is utterly engaging due to the flawless turns by Linney, Ruffalo, and Culkin.
Superbly executed, pic benefits from Kazmierski’s crisp lensing, McCabe’s spiked editing and Barber’s classical music interludes, all contributing to a delightful experience.