Kenneth Lonergan’s emotionally honest debut film is smart and touching
Kenneth Lonergan is known primarily as a playwright, and his Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay might lead you to believe that You Can Count on Me, which he also directed, is more of a literary exercise than a full-blown movie. But the screenplay is just one of the points of excellence in this beautifully constructed, intensely visualized debut effort.
With its story of a brother-sister relationship in a family scarred by tragedy, the film may sound more like an off-Broadway play than an American movie, but Lonergan and company vindicate themselves amply in cinematic terms. You Can Count on Me has excellent performances from its two lead actors (Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo), a wonderfully unpredictable set of secondary characters, a shrewd sense of everyday life in a smallish American town, and the courage and honesty to present sympathetic but unsentimental portraits of characters wrestling with the never-finished business of giving order to their unavoidably disordered lives.
Samantha (Linney), aka Sam, and Terry (Ruffalo), older sister and younger brother, were orphaned in childhood by their parents’ fatal car crash. The film begins with that fateful incident, but in the story proper the siblings are young adults and Terry is coming to visit Sam after a long absence. It is a reunion desired by both, but neither is entirely at peace with the other, and uneasy relations prevail from the moment the young man arrives back in town.
Sam is a divorced single mom working in the small town’s bank, and Terry is a somewhat restless drifter returning home briefly in the aftermath of assorted misadventures. There is a strong bond between the two of them, but that bond is repeatedly tested by the fitful uncertainties of their respective existences.
Those uncertainties have a certain potential for soap opera in them. Sam is having an affair with her new boss (Matthew Broderick), whom she dislikes at first, and is wavering over the belated marriage proposal from her longtime boyfriend; Terry has just done some jail time after a brawl and is trying to raise some cash so that his current female companion can get an abortion. And Sam’s little son (Ryan Culkin) is finding an erratic father surrogate in his Uncle Terry, who can’t resist an opportunity to let the kid see what a heartless lout his real and long unseen father is.
But You Can Count on Me steers smoothly clear of the moral and emotional hysteria that you might expect with such characters. Lonergan’s work is both smart and touching, and much of its special appeal comes of its emotional honesty. It’s a sad film but not a despairing one. Indeed, Lonergan’s character portrayals, intimate and sympathetic but never sentimentalized, make for some surprisingly heartening perspectives.