Kenneth Lonergan’s YOU CAN COUNT ON ME [8/10]

Don’t be put off by the bland title, trailer and poster – You Can Count On Me is one of the year’s best, most enjoyable movies. It’s a strikingly promising debut from writer-director Lonergan, who himself appears in two scenes as a priest. He acts exactly the same way he writes and directs: with a measured, mature intelligence, and no fuss, hurry or flashiness whatsoever. Very rare in US cinema these days. He’s so resolutely low-key, in fact, that in the opening credits’ list of performers he places himself right at the bottom of the list, below two characters who die before the titles actually start.

They’re the Prescotts (Amy Ryan, Michael Countryman), whose car-crash death orphans young Sammy and Terry. The siblings grow up as apparently dissimilar in characters as they are in looks. Blonde, straight-haired, porcelain-skinned Sammy (Linney) has never left home – she’s still in Scottsville, upstate New York, raising her eight-year-old son Rudy (Culkin) on her own after being abandoned by her husband. She’s a church-goer, mildly conservative in her habits and appearance, drifting in and out of a relationship with nice, inoffensive, slightly dull Bob (Jon Tenney).

Swarthy, dark-haired Terry (Ruffalo), meanwhile, got out of town as soon as he could, restlessly travelling the length and breadth of America, a moody tearaway who’s never wanted to settle down. His unexpected return to Scottsville coincides with Sammy struggling to cope with a tricky new boss (Broderick) at the bank where she works, and over the course of a few days all the old family wounds will be well and truly aired…

You Can Count On Me isn’t easy to synopsise (or to review) without making the ‘plot’ sound trivial and hackneyed. It’s Lonergan’s achievement to take apparently well-worn characters and situations, and make them so compulsively watchable. Many movies aim for this blend of comedy and drama, but very few pull it off – it’s refreshing to stumble across a ‘family’ movie that avoids succumbing to sentiment, melodrama or predictability.

Lonergan trusts his actors, gives them space to really inhabit these characters, and his faith is amply rewarded – Linney and Ruffalo are terrific, and there’s not a single weak link in the small supporting cast. It’s a movie of moments and nuances that gradually build into something special, so by the end it’s hard not to feel a real emotional connection to these flawed, fascinating characters – it’s a masterstroke to have them never actually saythe film’s title, even though they, and the audience, are obviously thinking it.

Lonergan is well-established as a writer of plays, and scripts, including Analyze This. And while the screenplay is the strong suit here, he’s perhaps a little less assured as a director – the film could do without the prologue showing the parents’ death (we’re also never told who actually raises Sammy and Terry), and the one scene set outside Scottsville (a brief two-hander between Terry and his girlfriend in their flat in Worcester, Massachusetts) is equally superfluous. It would perhaps have been more effective to set the whole movie in the present, in this (fictional) town nestling in the greenery of the Catskill mountains: for Sammy, a cosy, orderly home; for Terry, a stifling trap.

Lonergan’s control is so assured – he tends towards short scenes and functional compositions – that the occasional lapse seems all the more jarring, such as the odd moments where the strings score is laid on too loud over dialogue, and the ill-advised switch to hand-held during the scene where Terry impulsively takes Rudy to meet his father.

These are very minor quibbles, however. You Can Count On Me is occasionally reminiscent of both American Beautyand Boys Don’t Cry, in its intimate probing of family strife, and its powerful evocation of small-town inertia. Strong company, but Lonergan’s debut is perhaps an even more impressive achievement.

While those dramas tend toward the sensational, climaxing with shocking murders, You Can Count On Me manages to be just as engaging, just as powerfully convincing, while pivoting on a supposedly innocuous events – the highlight is a sensational sequence in which Terry, babysitting Rudy while Sammy goes out on a date, sneaks him out to the local bar for a game of pool, then must deal with the repercussions. Later, as Sammy herself sneaks out for an illicit tryst with a married man, we see Terry in the background giving her a you’re-up-to-something look that says everything about their relationship. A look that’s made all the more convincing, funny and authentic by Terry being just a little bit out of focus.

Neil Young
14th April, 2001 (rewrite)
original review written 31st January, 2001
US 2000
director/screenplay : Kenneth Lonergan
cinematography : Stephen Kazmierski
editing : Anne McCabe
stars : Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Rory Culkin
111 mins