You Can Count On Me
Our lives are messy; that's not a secret, though it seems to have escaped the notice of most studio executives when they greenlight film scripts. In Hollywood films, people are given - if they're lucky - two or maybe three personal characteristics, just tics if you like, that define them for the purposes of the movie. Films that deal with the mess of life, the overlapping problems, confusions, and everlasting hangovers from earlier years, must find their way through independent financing and support.
"You Can Count On Me" is one of those films, and luckily for its commercial potential now has Oscar nominations for its script, by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, and for its lead, actress Laura Linney. Linney is Samantha Prescott, the loan officer of a bank in a small town in upstate New York, where she lives with her 8-year-old son Rudy (Rory Culkin, youngest brother of Macaulay Culkin, former child star of the "Home Alone" movies). Rudy's father is not, at the moment, in the picture.
The film begins with the arrival for a visit of Samantha's brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo), a drifter, unfocused, irresponsible, with a winsome, boyish smile, a trigger temper and a heavy pot habit. Samantha and Terry, orphaned as children, try, briefly, to recapture the pleasures of their childhood relationship, but Terry's undisciplined habits are a great strain, particularly since Sammy now must cope with a rigid and controlling new boss, Brian Everett (Matthew Broderick).
What is fascinating and wonderful about the film is that it is less concerned with plot - the what-will-happen-if-or-when - than it is with how events and episodes and incidents trigger memories of past behavior, or lead to (slightly) greater understanding of why one behaves as one does. Terry's inability to deal with rigid timelines - he forgets to pick up Rudy after school -- is both bad and good. He is marked as irresponsible, but he is also able to give Rudy some delightful moments in which to see life and its pleasures through a grownup's eyes. And Terry also does for Rudy what his mother never could - he gives the boy a chance to see the absent, idealized father as he really is.
At the same time, he has opened Samantha up to the possibilities of life as a hellion - in her thirties, no less - and to enjoy every minute of it. One of the pleasures of the film is watching her open herself to thoughts and acts she had never before allowed herself.
But the film does not shy away from the sadness of a life lived alone, without structure or plans or goals; the film opens as Terry leaves his latest girlfriend because he cannot make any kind of commitment. The road of Terry's life is endless and all-consuming; there is always Alaska, or maybe somewhere else if that doesn't work out. Though Linney has been nominated for the Oscar, it is Ruffalo's performance that embodies the film's power and empathy.
As director, Lonergan trusts his script and doesn't try to get in his actors' way. The camera is our surrogate, watching without tricks or impositions as Terry's visit runs its course. And perhaps best of all, we are not subjected to an ending in which all loose ends are neatly wrapped up. We've been given a chance to spend a month or two with a family not unlike our own, with an unsteady core and some outreaching tentacles that tend to break off before they can latch onto something solid. It's a worthy experience.