You Can Count on Me

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

You Can Count on Me has all the ingredients of a soppy hugfest: repressed sibling rivalry, plucky single parenthood, and a wrenching good-bye scene, all of which is set against a small upstate New York town where flannel is abundant and the sheriff still makes house calls. What writer/director Kenneth Lonergan and his two leads (Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo) do with this bland set-up is alarmingly perceptive and real, a small miracle in this year of forced Hollywood feel-goodism. Downplaying the obvious, You Can Count on Me finds truth in the details. Itís a slight movie, but its intelligence and precision will uplift you. (You Can Count on Me won both the Best Picture and Best Screenplay awards at Sundance 2000.)

As if to subvert the inherent melodrama, Lonergan fills the big scenes with revealing minutia, making up in texture what they lack in originality. In the opening scene, a married couple muses on the nature of adolescent girls and orthodontic braces, just before a truck slams into their car, killing them. They are the parents of Samantha (Sammy) and Terry Prescott, whom we both meet twenty years later. They are living apart but keep in touch through letters that Sammy saves in her meticulously kept file cabinet. A single mother with an 8-year-old boy named Rudy, Sammy is overjoyed to learn that Terry will be visiting after a two year absence. Their reunion, however, is a disappointment and plays like a comedy of manners. Terry, now a chain-smoking slacker, fidgets and scans the restaurant for a waitress, while Sammy, outwardly pleasant, tries not to ask too many questions.

At the outset, Sammy and Terry seem molded into movie-of-the-week cliches: the established, controlling sister and her errant younger brother. And while they remain true to their predetermined traits, they also grow together, absorbing pieces of each other against their will, the way siblings often do. Terry takes to caring for Rudy while Sammy is at work. We think heíll screw up, but he doesnít, and weíre surprised (as is he) how well his life as a loner has prepared him for fatherhood. In one scene, he takes Rudy to a local bar to play pool. He does it not because he doesnít know any better, but because he sees that Rudy is bored and overprotected. In his own way, Terry is a sensible adult. Ruffaloís performance could have gone wrong in so many ways. Terry almost begs to be overplayed. Instead, he delivers a controlled performance that doesnít aim for any specific effect. Furrowing his dark eyebrows, Ruffalo is at once aloof and intense, winning us over with boyish insolence.

As Terry matures, Sammy lapses into adolescence. She juggles romances with a dorky neighbor, who is good for her, and with her boss, a chipper micromanager (Matthew Broderick) who is married and who is clearly wrong for her. Shuttling between trysts, she can barely control her amusement. She explodes in laughter. Itís a sharply observed moment of teenaged self-infatuation. Later when she reprimands Terry for taking Rudy to the bar, she can feel her authority slipping away, though she never admits it. Trying to reassert her moral rectitude, she tries unsuccessfully to enroll Terry in the local church. A silent desperation hangs about Sammy, shading her every move with insecurity. Laura Linney, who used her blond iciness to comic effect in The Truman Show, uses it here as a kind of shield against lifeís blows. When she lowers her defenses, we see a scared girl. Her near-perfect performance refuses to simplify Sammyís conflicting emotions.

Like Andre Techineís Alice et Martin, You Can Count on Me portrays two individuals who intersect and overlap each other. (In hommage, Lonergan borrows passages from the formerís musical score.) Sammy and Terry canít live apart, nor can they live together. The final scene, a separation, is satisfying because it is inconclusive. We donít know if Sammy and Terry will see each other again. We donít know which lover Sammy will choose. We donít know if what passed between Sammy and Terry was love or simply a biological bond. The ambiguity keeps us guessing. In this his directorial debut, Kenneth Lonergan gives us a curiously engaging film, neither cynical nor sentimental, and never willing to give us easy answers to the tough questions it poses.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Paramount Classics
Movie Web site: You Can Count On Me



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