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You Can Count On Me
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Laura Linney (Sammy), Mark Ruffalo (Terry), Matthew Broderick (Brian), Rory Culkin (Rudy), Jon Tenney (Bob), J. Smith-Cameron (Mabel), Gaby Hoffmann (Sheila)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 2000
Country: USA
You Can Count On Me Poster

Playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan's directorial debut, You Can Count On Me, is a bittersweet drama about the affectionate, but strained relationship between two siblings whose parents died in a car accident when they were children. No information is given on how they grew up, but 18 years later, the older sister, Sammy (Laura Linney), is a single mother who still lives in her parents' house in the small upstate New York town of Scottsville, and the younger brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo), is an aimless drifter, constantly in need of money and always in trouble.

This could have easily turned into a simplistic good-bad scenario in which Terry is depicted as the troubled younger brother in need of salvation from his responsible older sister. And, in some ways, that is what the story is about. But, Lonergan is wise enough to realize that even would-be saviors more often than not have troubles of their own, and Sammy is no exception. Her heart is in the right place, but because she is human, she makes mistakes. She misjudges people, she makes snap judgments, and she tends to make the mistake of sleeping with men not because she loves them, but because she feels sorry for them.

When the film begins, Terry decides to return home unexpectedly to visit Sammy and her eight-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). This is the first time brother and sister have seen each other in two years, and Sammy is greatly excited, deluding herself that Terry is coming home to see her not because he's in trouble or because he needs money, but because he wants to see her. As it turns out, Terry is in some kind of trouble, but Longergan keeps the exact nature of his problems slightly vague because they are not the center of the narrative. Rather, it is the way in which he and Sammy deal with each other and each other's problems.

When Terry comes to visit, Sammy is caught between two men. The first is Bob (Jon Tenney), an amiable man whom she has dated off-and-on for several years. Bob surprises her with a proposal for marriage, something Sammy is neither prepared for nor particularly interested in. At the same time, she has begun an ill-advised affair with her new, anal-retentive bank manager, Brian (Matthew Broderick). Her compromised position makes it somewhat difficult for her to preach responsibility to Terry.

Some of the best scenes in You Can Count On Me are not between Sammy and Terry, but rather between Terry and Rudy, Sammy's young son. Rudy, who has never known his father--a man with whom Sammy wants nothing to do--immediately looks up to his uncle. He doesn't see a scruffy, ill-kept, chain-smoking failure. Rather, he sees an older male who shares secrets with him, talks straight to him, and offers to take him fishing. Sammy obviously wants Terry and Rudy to get along, but it is like walking on glass because she is always afraid that Terry will act irresponsibly and Rudy will be hurt as a result.

It is this tentative fear of everything breaking down that pervades much of You Can Count On Me. It is ultimately about people who love each other, but are often unable to deal with other. The effort is there, but Lonergan makes the point clear that effort doesn't always end with neat results. His screenplay is well-written--he has a knack for writing good dialogue and creating believable tension between the characters. He takes the dramatic scenes to a certain pitch without letting them go overboard into hysteria. It is his sly restraint that makes the film work.

Lonergan is aided greatly by solid performances from his leads, most of whom are stepping up to leading status after many years of supporting roles. Laura Linney, who played the phony wife in The Truman Show (1998), is excellent at conveying both the strength and the vulnerability of Sammy, while Mark Ruffalo does a good job of portraying a troubled young man without making him insufferably flawed. Terry has problems, but underneath you get the sense that he is truly a decent person. Matthew Broderick serves mostly as comic relief in his role as Brian the bank manager, although he does make the character interesting enough in his own right. Not to be overlooked is Rory Culkin, who turns in an effective performance as Rudy--engaging without being kiddy cute.

You Can Count Me works well at conveying complex familial relations. It leaves the ending open, suggesting that the kinds of problems raised by the plot are not easily solved, especially over such a short period of time. In his directorial debut, Lonergan proves to have a solid grasp of human relations, even if his filmmaking style is a bit dry and predictable. Still, this film shows definite promise in its nuanced look at mature sibling relations.

You Can Count On Me DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
Supplements Audio commentary by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan
A Look Inside: Interviews with Kenneth Lonergan and stars Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, and Rory Culkin
Original theatrical trailer
DistributorParamount Pictures

You Can Count On Me is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in an anamorphic transfer. The film has a very naturalistic look, meaning that there isn't much in the way of camera movement or unexpected angles and all the lighting appears real and does not call attention to itself. Overall, the transfer looks very good, although the movie's relatively low budget is sometimes obvious in the image quality, which includes a few nicks and scratches here and there, but nothing particularly distracting. The image is generally sharp and well detailed; colors appear warm and flesh tones are natural.

Available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 surround or 2.0 surround, the soundtrack works well with the material. As You Can Count On Me is largely dialogue-based, most of the soundtrack is centered on the front soundstage, with the surrounds used sparingly for ambient background noise. The movie uses music minimally, but effectively, and when it does appear it fills the room nicely through the multiple channels.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan contributes the kind of screen-specific audio commentary one would expect from a playwright making his feature-film directorial debut. He talks a great deal about the characters and the processes of writing and working with actors, and he also discusses the philosophical and religious issues brought up in the narrative. He is candid about his work as a director, citing his influences and noting what could have been done differently at certain points and why he did what he did. All in all, it is an intriguing commentary, especially for those who are more interested in the narrative and literary aspects of filmmaking as opposed to the technical nuts-and-bolts that dominate many audio commentaries.

Also included on the disc is the promotional piece A Look Inside, a 12-minute segment of interviews with Lonergan and stars Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, and Rory Culkin. Given the 12-minute length, there is not much depth to this segment, although it is always of interest to hear actors talk about the characters they played and how they understood them.

Lastly, the original theatrical trailer is included in full-screen.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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