You Can Count on Me
You Can Count On Me USA, 2000. Rated R. 109 minutes.

Cast: Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Rory Culkin, Jon Tenney, J. Smith-Cameron, Ken Lonergan
Writer: Ken Lonergan
Music: Lesley Barber
Cinematographer: Stephen Kazmierski
Producers: Barbara De Fina, John Hart, Larry Meistrich, Jeff Sharp
Director: Ken Lonergan


Grade: B+ Review by Dana Knowles

 f more American indie films were like You Can Count on Me, I'd be a bigger fan of American indie films. For me, nothing says, "run away!" more succinctly than an ad boasting a big win at the Sundance Film Festival. Far too often, small films are rewarded for their intentions instead of their execution, paving a road to viewing hell for the unsuspecting audience, however well-meaning the heralded mediocrity (or atrocity) might be.

First time director Ken Lonergan can relax and display his prize with honor, however, because You Can Count on Me is a lovely little film that aims small, but hits its mark. Rather than preach about a hot-button social issue, Lonergan takes us into the small town lives of a few characters and simply lets them be. If that sounds unambitious, hie thee hence to a deprogramming center, because few things are more difficult than bringing the ordinary into focus with the sort of grace and quirky specificity that Lonergan achieves.
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Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney) is a smart, capable banking administrator in the tiny branch office of her sleepy Catskills town. A single mother of one young son named Rudy (Rory Culkin), she balances the routines of her family life with those of her job, though not with the precision or strict professionalism that her new boss (Matthew Broderick) demands. She's adrift in a comfortable (but dispassionate) long-term relationship with a dull fellow named Bob (Jon Tenney), though she hasn't really integrated his presence into her home life with Rudy. In the meantime, Rudy is reaching an age when the absence of his never-known father must take some kind of shape, and he opts to mythologize Rudy Sr. as an out-of-reach hero, ignoring his mother's terse disdain for a man she believes is best forgotten.

Into this mix comes Terry Prescott (Mark Ruffalo), Sammy's wayward, dope-smoking younger brother, who reluctantly returns home in hopes of getting some much-needed money from his stable, solvent sister. Though polar opposites as characters, and living utterly separate lives, Sammy and Terry are bound to one another by the shared experience of siblings, and particularly by their specific history, having lost both parents in an auto accident when they were very young. Terry is a mess, but Sammy is ecstatic about his arrival. He may not be much of a prize from outward appearances, but he's still all the family she's got, and her love and need for him is palpable. Until....

You may think you know where this is going to lead, but you're probably wrong. That's what sets Lonergan's film apart from similar efforts. He has no interest in setting up this plot line in order to pass judgment on which sibling is living the right kind of life, or to teach us all a lesson about how families ought to work. The dramatic scenario is pure movie-plot convention, but its purpose is to provide a structural foundation upon which complex interpersonal dynamics can play themselves out in a charming, illuminating, and often surprising way. Rather than merely having the rascally drifter come home, upset the apple cart, and alter everybody's lives to their benefit or detriment, Lonergan gives equal weight to the effect that each of the three central characters has on the others. Laura LinneyScene by scene, we see how the presence of another valued person shapes and defines who we are and how we choose to be.

If you're going to make a film that teaches no lessons, reaches no moral conclusions, and solves no problems, it's best to be armed with an exceptional cast and a really good script. You Can Count on Me has both. Linney (The Truman Show, The House of Mirth, Primal Fear) is razor-sharp and impossibly endearing as Sammy, showing off her under-exploited acting talent in a non-show-offy performance that makes the character feel whole and authentic, wacky contradictions and all. Rory Culkin–yet another young actor from the seemingly bottomless well of Culkin kids–is thoroughly engaging as Rudy, a quiet and multi-dimensional child who has all the built-in sympathy of a "cute kid" character without stooping to be one.

The biggest splash is made by Mark Ruffalo as the ne'er-do-well brother. It's impossible to tell how much of Terry's oddball syntax and loopy verbal ramblings come straight from the script, but Ruffalo nails the quirky rhythms exquisitely, creating a memorable portrait of a bright-but-uneducated free spirit whose impetuous nature breaks and builds barriers in equal measure, often simultaneously. This is no limply familiar wastrel boat-rocker. Terry is saint, sinner, and a bunch of stuff in between... with an odd knack for being thoughtless and thoughtful in the same moment. Ruffalo makes him raucous, poignant, reckless, and caring, all without missing a beat. I don't know if I'd really want to have a brother like Terry, but if I did, I'd love him to pieces in spite of his flaws while writhing with exasperation when faced with them–just like Sammy does.

And speaking of flaws... it's only fair to concede that You Can Count on Me has a few minor flaws to forgive. The familial triangle at its center is nearly perfect, but the sub-plots involving Sammy's boss and her boyfriend are more of a mixed bag. The boyfriend thread is underwritten, and clearly meant to be a marginal bit of context for Sammy's slow awakening to the dead end nature of her comfortable routines. The boss thread plays a more prominent role, and though it's good for character development and provides some memorable laughs, Matthew Broderick's cartoonish stiffness seems out of place in the same film with characters who are no less pointed constructs of a writer's imagination, but manage to feel real in spite of that.

Still, it's easy to forgive such lapses when the result is so entertaining, and entertaining is the operative word here. You Can Count on Me definitely reaches for some humble truths about love, family, freedom, restraint, and messy realities that repel simple solutions, but it approaches those themes with wit and warmth, a keen ear for dialogue, and a sensibility that is twisted in a way that feels fresh and alive without straining credulity or spinning out of control. Yes, it's an indie, but it's not the least bit ponderously self-important or falsely uplifting. Instead, Ken Lonergan took this chance to be a director and chose to make a very modest–and very good–movie, when the norm is to settle for opening a vein. If only more debuts were half as courageous as this one.

Review © November 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 The Shooting Gallery. All Rights Reserved.

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