Kenneth Lonergan is an established, well-respected playwright making his first feature film in You Can Count on Me. Kindly remember that fact when you’re shaking your head in wonder at the confidence with which he constructs virtually every moment of the film. And remember that he is a playwright—though, yes, a playwright with a few screenwriting credits—who seems to understand instinctively exactly how many words are required to convey a scene’s essence and emotion, or when no words are required at all. You Can Count on Me is a simple story told so simply that every complexity beneath the surface emerges fully formed.
And there is plenty of complexity beneath the surface. At its core, it’s your basic family drama. Samantha “Sammy” Prescott (Laura Linney) is a single mother still living in the small upstate New York town where she grew up, raising her 8-year-old son Rudy (Rory Culkin—yes, another one of those Culkins, but a talented one) and working as a loan officer at the local bank. Orphaned as a young teenager along with her younger brother Terry, Sammy has tried to create a relatively stable life for herself and Rudy. But when inveterate drifter Terry (Mark Ruffalo) comes back to visit (and hit his sister up for cash), that stability is shaken. While Terry becomes a surrogate father/bad influence for Rudy, Sammy gets involved in a relationship with her married boss (Matthew Broderick). Complications and conflicts ensue.
A thoroughly engrossing piece of film storytelling also ensues. The heart of that story is provided by its two main characters, performed as brilliantly as they are written. Laura Linney’s Sammy combines the earnestness of a struggling parent with hints of a reformed wild child; her basic decency gives way to resentment when her boss tries to hold her to stricter attendance rules. Ruffalo, meanwhile, is simply superb as the embittered Terry, capturing both his smug cynicism and his desire to please the sister who was also his mother. The relationship between the two is so convincing in its detail that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch. Lonergan grounds You Can Count on Me in the fundamental truth of adult sibling relationships: the way grown men and women regress to the “you suck” dynamics of their youthful interactions when dealing with their brothers and sisters.
Lonergan also gives his actors the kind of shorthand physical moments that would require a mountain of dialogue from a less talented writer. When Sammy chides Terry for a stupid mistake, Terry shuts out Sammy by turning up the television volume; Sammy leaves the bed of her sometime boyfriend Bob (Jon Tenney) with a perfunctory embrace. In one of You Can Count on Me’s most perfectly pitched moments, Sammy drives alone in her car after one tryst with her boss, and Linney captures her rollercoaster of emotions about the affair with nothing but body language. The minimalist approach works in almost every instance, except with regard to Sammy and Bob’s relationship. Tenney’s character is under-written in a way that makes the dynamics of their interaction unclear at best. In a film full of things left unsaid, it’s the one case where too much is left unsaid.
For 95 percent of the film, however, such an approach captures virtually every crucial thematic thread. You Can Count on Me shows people trying to find something firm to cling to after a life full of turmoil and upheaval. In a world where even their church is more concerned with feel-good psychology than putting its foot down, they long for the structure of even an imperfect family. They long for it despite knowing that, just as it happens in many families, the part between the joyous arrivals and tearful goodbyes can drive you crazy.
Lonergan has turned these relationships into a beautiful, funny, intelligent film, one where there’s meaning in every silence. It’s wonderfully appropriate that, as the film draws to its conclusion, Lonergan leaves a wordless hug exactly where you would expect the film’s title to complete an unfinished thought. That’s not what you’d find in the work of a playwright dabbling in film. That’s what you find in the work of a filmmaker.
You Can Count on Me (R) HHHH Directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Starring Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick.