Film Review: Film Review: You Can Count on Me
Small town America delivers some big time reflections
You Can Count on Me could be described as any number of "pub, cinema, pub, cinema, PUB" things; life-affirming, charming, heart-warming, even sweet. And it is all of these things. But debut director Kenneth Lonergan delivers it in in a way you could not imagine. Some stellar scriptwriting from the same man makes this a hard number to pin down, suffice to say it administers a healthy whoosh of oxygen to the jaded midweek psyche and I felt strangely refreshed in its aftermath.
The film details a reunion of sorts between Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo), twenty-something siblings inexorably bound by the loss of their parents in early childhood. This diminutive family necessarily understands itself as the sum of two very symbiotic parts. While Sammy remains in the family home, raising eight-year-old Rudy (Rory Culkin), and fending off the unnecessary complication that is her new, thoroughly anal, boss Brian (Matthew Broderick), Terry is freed up to drift across states and into trouble. He returns home only to beg financial favours from his big sister but, on this occasion, circumstances dictate that he hang around for a while. It is in the precarious, makeshift space created by this protracted visit that "You Can..." delicately carves out a story about the infinite complexities of filial, and familial, love.
This is not so much a character-driven piece as it is one about real people; people without any great master plans. The characters ricochet from one point of indecision to the next and are palpably terrified of doing, or even defining, the bone fida "right thing", lest it all go horribly wrong. As testimony to its ordinary, everyday nature, "You Can..." is set in that cinematic mainstay of ordinary, everyday America; sleepy smallville or, in this case, Scotsville, New York. Though it is not notable for any exceptional photographic prowess, some nifty location hunting nevertheless nestles Scotsville in the midst of stupendously green and wholesome countryside. You can almost smell the fresh air and clean living.
It is this clean living and the generally tranquil stagnancy of the place that ostensibly has Terry in self-imposed exile. Sammy, by contrast, clings with white-knuckle conviction to the security of familiarity and latches on to religion as a substitute route to guidance and support. Those various little mainstays and routines she utilises, to create a sense of control and order, are swiftly upended by the well-meaning Terry and all is hilariously chaotic until he treads too far, challenging some of her most fundamental and deeply-held beliefs as a lone parent. Meanwhile, she picks at the bones of an unfulfilling relationship with local man Bob and, just for the sheer hell of it, tries on an affair for size, with her ill-fitting and irritating boss Brian.
Linney defines her character inside and out, giving her a wonderfully lived-in and nuanced quality that is both fresh and highly likeable. This allows Ruffalo room to play up Terry's angsty but endearing "loser with the heart of gold" persona and he squirms, grimaces and mumbles with the best of them, inviting inevitable Brando comparisons. Despite the stigma of his unfortunate family name, Rory Culkin is far from the precocious and irritating Hollywood brat one might expect (at least while in character) and he gives to the earnest Rudy a cute kind of solemnity.
"You can..." is imbued with enough entertainment value to function perfectly well as an insubstantial little slip of a thing. On a whole other level, however, Lonergan uses the film to carefully broach those sticky issues that require a little attention from time to time, like the meaning of life and our place in it. So skillfully does he weave these awkward philosophical ponderings into the film's overall fabric that they appear no more obtrusive than a conversation about the weather, and are made infinitely more palatable as a result. He is an understated talent, who comprehends the virtue of timing and he provides ample space for his characters to unfold, refusing to propel them towards an unsuitably fine-pointed conclusion.
Down your pints and go see!
'You Can Count on Me' is on show in Dublin's IFC until 12th April 2001.