[Written for The Herald]
Good movies almost always let you know they’re good within the first couple of minutes. You Can Count on Me is that kind of good movie.
In a way both casual and heart-stopping, this independent film begins with a car accident that takes the lives of a married couple. They leave behind two children, a sister and brother. You may think you’ve seen this kind of sequence before, but writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, a playwright making his first film, hits all unexpected notes.
From there, the story jumps ahead a few years. The sister, now a single mom, is Samantha Prescott (Laura Linney). She and her 8-year-old son Rudy (Rory Culkin) live in the same house her parents owned, in a small upstate New York town. Her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) hasn’t been heard from for a few months, but he’s about to come back home.
A classic case of a lost soul, Terry has been drifting around for a while, without finding what he’s searching for. He doesn’t even know what it is he hopes to find. His layover at the family home forms the basis for the film’s keen human comedy: how this controlled, responsible sister and this slovenly, unreliable brother come to terms with each other.
The actors are crucial in putting this evolution across. Ruffalo is rough and real, but without overdoing the James Dean routine. He has some wonderful scenes with Rory Culkin (yes, part of the Macaulay Culkin family), especially a pool game that results in instant male bonding. Matthew Broderick, a childhood friend of the director, does sharp comic work in a supporting role, as the martinet manager of the bank where Samantha works. When she complains that his new policies will increase paperwork, he smugly replies, “I like paperwork.”
The film is a real gift to Laura Linney, the bright dimpled actress who played Jim Carrey’s perfect wife in The Truman Show and had the central role in the miniseries Tales of the City. Samantha’s life is nowhere near as calm and tidy as it first appears, and Linney shows you all the character’s faults without commenting on them one way or the other. This is the wonderful thing about Lonergan’s film: it has an absolute acceptance of its people, even when they mess up badly. Lonergan has noticed that most people do mess up, repeatedly, and still deserve a little compassion.
He’s also very good with dialogue. When Terry complains that, “I’m not the kind of guy people say I am,” it strikes exactly the right note of defiance and shame. Best of all, Lonergan (who also plays a sincere, sympathetic man of the cloth) knows when not to write dialogue. Some of the best moments in the film come when we brace for a big dramatic revelation, only to find the scene discreetly ending.
Through it all, the opening scene remains in our minds, and the fact of Samantha and Terry being orphaned young. They rarely refer to it again, but that event has affected every minute of this marvelous movie.