Writer Kenneth Lonergan (Analyze This) crafts a well-made film for his directorial debut. You Can Count on Me tied for the top honor with Girlfight at the Sundance Festival, and much of its positives are due to the screenplay itself.
The story focuses primarily on the relationship between a sister and her younger brother, who have separated physically but remain close emotionally and spiritually, evidenced early in the film by Sammy's (Laura Linney) excitement that Terry (Mark Ruffalo) will be coming to visit and her file cabinet filled with sibling letters. They have both experienced suffering in their lives, as their parents were killed in an auto accident, Sammy has been through a bad marriage, and Terry has experienced jail and broken relationships.
Sammy is the responsible one. Now a single mother, she has stayed in the same town and house that her parents owned, has a job at the bank and attends church regularly. In contrast, Terry is a drifter with no regular means of support and would rather go fishing than sit in church.
The reunion doesn't come off that well at first. Terry needs money and Sammy gives in reluctantly, feeling that she is being used--obviously not the first time. A great scene in the restaurant has simplicity, yet has so much going on beneath the surface. Terry is extremely fidgety and uncomfortable, like an ADD child without his Ritalin, finally confessing to his sister than he hadn't kept in contact recently because of a jail stint. Sammy explodes in public, but personal and family truths are revealed during this exchange and the movie picks up intensity.
Sammy wants to help Terry mature and become more responsible, and pleads with him to stay. Terry resists the idea of staying initially, saying that the small town "cramps him." Later that night, he breaks down in a heartfelt scene and decides to stay for a while. While Terry has experienced freedom by travelling to Alaska, he has lost a feeling of his roots.
One of the connecting points between the two siblings is Sammy's little boy, Rudy, played by the youngest of the acting Caulkins (Rory). Rudy continually asks about his dad and has fantasies about what a hero he must be. While his mother chooses to hide any details about Rudy's father, Terry lets him know that his father is a real jerk. He even takes Rudy to meet his father, and we discover that Terry has understated the case. Rudy Sr. is beyond being a jerk, and seems fit to play one of the backwoods characters in Deliverance.
Essentially You Can Count on Me contains far more character development than plot line. The visit is significant because brother and sister both influence each other during the encounter. Freewheeling Terry begins to see value in family primarily through developing a relationship with his nephew. It's certainly not through Sammy's efforts to get him to attend church!
Terry enjoys his time with Rudy, taking him to work on a construction site and to the pool hall. Some nice human touches in these scenes include how Terry instructs Rudy how to use the hammer correctly and how he sets Rudy up to win the pool match.
But it's not just Terry who grows in the film. Conservative, responsible Sammy begins to have an affair with her straight laced boss, Brian (Matthew Broderick), and begins to distance herself from dull Bob that she has relied upon whenever she feels lonely. Further evidence of this occurs after Terry has taken Ryan to meet his dad, as she begins to tell her son the truth about Ryan Sr. for the first time.
Don't expect Lonergan to wrap everything up all neatly at the end. Independent films do not need no stinkin' endings where everything is resolved happily ever after—this mirrors real life and without adding the neatly resolved Hollywood touch at the end.
Although Matthew Broderick is the only big name actor in the movie, he has a relatively minor role. The acting talents of the two lead characters, Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, carry the movie effectively. Linney appeared as the wife in The Truman Show and has done a great deal of stage work. She shows emotional range and always appears in control. Ruffalo reminds of Brando in Streetcar Named Desire or On the Waterfront. There's a bit of a swagger there, and a great deal of emotional openness that comes through on screen. After the confrontation in the restaurant, he settles into his role and throws everything he's got into a very relatable character.
Director Lonergan says that young Caulkin was perfect for the part and is a real natural. He looked so pitiful for his audition because he is essentially very shy and had become car sick on the way. Lonergan claims that the toughest thing Caulkin had to do was to smile because he is so melancholy and low key that he was only happy when he was miserable.
Other supporting cast members are also effective. Lonergan plays a clergyman in a small cameo, largely because the original actor was injured and he came cheap. Broderick had gone to school with Lonergan and asked to play a part after reading the script, so that's how he was cast to play the anal retentive bank manager who leaves little post-it notes for Sammy.
The dialog sounds very natural and the screenplay is well structured without resorting to flashbacks. Lonergan says that he wanted to focus on the present situation, yet there are plenty of clues to show what had gone on over the years with the brother and sister. It doesn't take a real genius to figure out that:
1. Sammy had led some pretty wild years as a teen
Lonergan shows us these things through visuals or scenes that help us discover their past, like the dinner table scene when Sammy looks away when Terry mentions that his sister had some pretty wild years. Couple that with the knowledge that she had married Ryan Sr., and we get the sense that she was not always a model citizen.
2. She has turned to the church and devoted herself to her parents home
3. Sammy and Terry have remained close over the years despite differences
4. Terry has issues with commitment
Adding to the down home feel of the movie and the personal introspection is the musical background, often consisting of a viola playing a classical sounding piece. Paired with some great silent acting by the lead characters, these scenes become especially powerful.
When asked about the main theme of this movie, Lonergan believes it is to "have faith in someone who may not have necessarily earned it." Those who think that Lonergan can only write comedy—since his previous projects were Analyze This and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle—need to give him a second chance. It's not all fun and games with his films. You Can Count on Me has its light moments, but it deals with universal issues concerning freedom and trusting others that will moisten the eyelids and leave you satisfied.