Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) Prescott were once everything to each other. When they were little kids, both their parents died in a car accident, leaving them with only each other to lean on. Or so we figure, since the film opens with the brother and sister being orphaned and then cuts to when they’re adults, with their childhood’s tragedy rarely mentioned but felt through, like a subtle shadow cast on the characters’ lives. We learn that as teens, Terry and Sammy went a little wild… But at some point Sam got knocked up by a white trash jerk who wouldn’t know anything about a kid and left her alone to raise him. Things turned out pretty good for her, it seems. When we meet her as thirtysomething woman, Sammy is living a nice, simple life in the picturesque little town of Scottsville, N.Y., working as a loan officer in a local bank, living in the big house her brother and her inherited from their folks with her son Rudy (Rory Culkin), who’s now 8. Her on and off boyfriend Bob (John Tenney) isn’t all that for her anymore, and the her new branch manager (Matthew Broderick) is a pain in the ass, but things are pretty okay.
Terry, though, took a rockier road. He left Scottsville, not really knowing where he was going but certain he didn’t want to stay in such a small, gorgeous but dull town. So he’s been drifting around the country aimlessly, sometimes working, sometimes just hanging out, anywhere from Alaska to Florida, never settling down. He’s still an “angry young man”, smoking pot, drinking, getting into fights… Sammy loves him, but he worries him. Especially with his habit of going away for long spans of time without keeping in touch. As the film begins, Terry comes back to his sister after a 6 year silence. She’s happy to see him, but disappointed to realize he only needs money. Still, she takes him into her house, hoping she’ll be able to help him out more than financially..
“You Can Count On Me” is the kind of film that sounds boring when you try to say what it’s about, but it’s anything but. It takes on plot threads seen countless times, like the long gone, ‘bad’ sibling who comes back to disturb his sister’s life, or the woman who hates her boss but ends up having an affair with him, but it then takes unexpected, interesting liberties with the clichés. Terry isn’t made to be all bad. He might not be the perfect role model for the kid, cursing in front of him, forgetting to go pick him up after school and so on, but he’s a welcome presence anyway in little fatherless Rudy’s life. They get along fine, maybe because Terry isn’t all that grown up himself. I like how he never treats his 8 year old nephew like a child. He talks to him like he would to any friend, without toning down his cynical, bitter worldview.
The film could go many ways from there, taking on phony plot twists, or trying to jerk tears out of the audience, or going for cheap answers, but it does none of that. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (who also appears in the film as the local priest) creates these complex, conflicted characters and then just lets them live their lives, dealing with problems as best as they can. Lonergan never manipulates or condescends; he cares for his characters, and he makes us care for them too by developing them into whole persons, not just stereotypes. He makes you feel like you know these people, and you’re glad to. The film made me laugh at times, cry at others, but it always came naturally. I was enthralled in the complicated relationship between Terry and Sammy, the way they love each other even though they’re sometimes at each other’s throat.
Despite Lonergan’s fine-tuned script and skilful direction, what makes the movie really special is the uniformly great acting it features. Laura Linney was good in “The Truman Show” as Jim Carrey’s wife, but she was hardly the most memorable thing about that brilliant film. Now, here she gets to really creates a wonderful character. She’s always very true, very compelling… Many actresses tend to overplay things, to show off that they can make big scenes, with lots of tears and everything. I like how Linney doesn’t strain to impress; she just does. Mark Ruffalo is equally fascinating as her brother. It’s a very complex thing he goes for, a character who puts on a certain attitude but often feels otherwise, but he conveys it beautifully. The guy’s cocky, laying on the charm, sunglasses, cigarette and everything, playing it cool, but you somehow feel hurt behind the facade. This vulnerability through a rough edge gives Ruffalo the feel of a young Brando. The other very good performance in the film comes from, surprisingly, Rory Culkin as Linney’s son. Oh, great, another Culkin you might think at first, but wait till you see this little dude. He’s way ahead of the cutesy goofing Macaulay did in “Home Alone”. Culkin always seems as true as the grown-ups in the film. Matthew Broderick is also pretty good as the boss; he doesn’t steal the show, but you see that his fine work in “Election” wasn’t a fluke.
It’s almost incredible that such a mature film, so full of subtlety and nuance, is the directorial debut of the guy who wrote, of all things, “The Adventures Of Rocky & Bullwinkle”. That was a moderately enjoyable piece of fluff, but this is something else! “You Can Count On Me” is truly a film to be seen. I know, I know, it doesn’t sound particularly exciting (what character drama ever does?), but it is very rewarding. Its insightful writing, effective direction and superior acting make it into one of the best films I’ve seen all year.