Brother love

Film debut a sublime look at siblings’ relationship

The kind of film that often gets lost in the Hollywood shuffle, You Can Count On Me is marked by great writing (the film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance and shared Grand Jury Prize honors with Girlfight) and utterly believable relationships between characters. First-time director Kenneth Lonergan’s origin in New York theater is evident in almost every shading and nuance of this sublime work, which privileges the difficult, always negotiated relationships between people and recognizes that there is as much meaning in between words and action as there is contained within them.
One of the better films of 2000, an admittedly abysmal year in movies thus far, You Can Count On Me centers on the strained but loving relationship between an adult brother and sister.
The film opens with the death of Sammy and Terry’s parents in a car accident when they were only children. And that event contextualizes the entire film, running below the narrative’s surface and investing the relationship between the grown-up Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) with greater emotional complexity.
You Can Count On Me continues years after that fateful loss. Sammy is cozily ensconced in her parents home in the same small upstate New York town of Scottsville that she was born in, raising an 8-year-old son by herself, with a stable job at the local bank and a sweet, but uninspiring boyfriend. Terry, now a directionless, cynical pothead, breezes into town to borrow money from his sister, a visit that sends Sammy into an excited flurry of cleaning, baking and anticipation of her younger brother’s arrival.
The beauty of You Can Count On Me lies in its characters, who never revert to type and who display a psychological coloration that continually — and plausibly — changes the terms of this family drama. The apparently defeated, hopeless Terry turns out to be a droll wit and hardbitten pragmatist who charms Sammy’s son Rudy (Rory Culkin) with his chummy, just-between-us-guys manner.
Some of the funniest moments in You Can Count On Me are between Rudy and Terry, who talks to the child like a peer rather than a child. Terry grills Rudy on why he likes boring Scottsville and takes him on trips to the local pool hall (“If we get in any trouble, let me do the talking”) and bursts the boy’s bubble about his absent “hero” father, who Terry knows to be a bum, telling Rudy bluntly, “he wasn’t very likeable.” Terry becomes a kind of father substitute for Rudy, who still harbors a heart-tugging faith in the dad who abandoned him years ago and he longs to rediscover.
Ruffalo is captivating. A sad sack one minute, he plays the lost boy rendered directionless by his parents’ death, and then becomes a sulky, ironic, jaded slacker who refuses to let his sister off the hook for her own less-than-angelic qualities. Sammy’s apparent love for the can’t-win-for-losing Terry is heartbreaking. You can see in every maternal gesture she offers him, with every show of love, that he is her chance to have the family her parents’ death erased and that protecting him is an extension of protecting her own child and wanting to give both of them some shelter from the world’s cruel vagaries.
Performing a slight spin on his uptight teacher in the scabrous Election, Matthew Broderick is winning as the tightly strung, officious control freak bank manager Brian who swoops down on Sammy’s office with a bureaucratic reign of terror, clamping down on tardiness and colorful computer scenes and proclaiming, “I like paperwork.” An actor who employs his boyish cuteness to often disarming effect, Broderick’s puppy dog brown eyes can brim over with feigned concern, or turn cold, opaque and unforgiving. Like all of You Can Count on Me’s ensemble, Brian blossoms into another incredibly seductive, likable mess, an uptight adulterer with a bit of a wild streak who engages in a disastrous affair with Sammy. Broderick has developed into one of the subtlest comic actors around, able to convey human weakness with X-ray accuracy.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is clearly not into making saints or sinners out of these characters, who register with all the annoying flaws and quirks of real people. From the very inception of You Can Count On Me, Lonergan manages to avoid manipulative or one-note emotions, as when he establishes the death of Sammy and Terry’s parents in two terse, but telling scenes. What Lonergan does have is a gift reminiscent of John Sayles for well-drawn characters like the town minister (played by Lonergan) burdened with a distinctly 21st-century pragmatism about human foibles, and who replaces hard-nosed Christian intolerance with a gentle, quick-to-demure, nonjudgmental approach to his parshioners. And thankfully refusing to play the cute factor in a Hollywood addicted to syrupy, tragedy-laced moppets, Lonergan makes Sammy’s son Rudy a full-blown child’s child, with his own believably modest peculiarities. An often snappish contrarian who resists his mother’s kindness (“it’s not a backpack it’s a knapsack,” he snaps at Sammy), even as he romanticizes his absent father, Rudy is everything Hollywood’s ersatz movie children typified by Haley Joel Osment in Pay It Forward are not.
Near the end of You Can Count on Me Terry asks Sammy, “Remember when we were kids, what we always used to say to each other?” Lonergan, in a typically wise show of restraint leaves that question dangling. We never learn what those magic words exchanged between the children were, but we can sense in the portrait Lonergan has given us of these people, all we need to know.