And now a re-view of Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me, brought to you by our newest guest writer Erik Jaccard.

I have always been a fan of films that slip through the cracks.  Some films fall to the side because of content or casting, some because of timing or decreased distribution.  But often such films simply find themselves overshadowed by their big-budget competition at the time of year when everyone is already yammering on about ‘Oscar© Buzz,’ red carpets, and designer dresses.  Consequently, early November is a wonderful time to go poking around for those films that fell by the wayside in the mad rush to release and instantly appreciate the dozens of ‘award-worthy’ films premiered every year in the tumult of the holidays and Hollywood’s looming ‘awards season.’ While searching for some such film to review, I came upon veteran playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial debut You Can Count On Me, released ten years ago this week.  I bring it before you ten years later to consider how it has aged, how I have aged perhaps, and what we can take away from one of the better ‘slipped through the cracks’ films of 2000.

At first glance, it is not surprising that the film managed to evade mainstream attention.  Borne from one of Lonergan’s one-act plays, You Can Count On Me is for all intents and purposes a very slight film and easy to miss.  Perhaps it’s also easy to overlook a character-driven drama about two adult siblings reuniting and changing the ways that they see themselves and one another.  To be certain, there are no fireworks or explosions here, no peril, and barely any romance.  All the same, it is rare to see a movie dealing with emotionally alienated siblings done so well, with such obvious care, and with such a nuanced attention to how people distance themselves from one another in the light of personal tragedy.

Orphaned at a young age, Sammy (a perfectly cast Laura Linney) and Terry Prescott (Mark Ruffalo) have lived wildly divergent lives.  Having stayed behind in the sleepy Catskills town of Scotsville, NY, Sammy lives an ordered, quiet, and responsible life with her 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin).  She works hard, she goes to church, and she wants the best for Rudy, whose father (Josh Lucas) has split the scene.  Ultimately, she seeks the safety and stability life in her restricted world provides.  Terry, on the other hand, is an itinerant outcast, bouncing from one place to next looking for work, getting in fights, daring the world to be something other than the fucked up place he takes it for.  Rudy’s desire for a father figure blooms into a camaraderie with Terry, whose conversations with the boy demonstrate just how immature Terry really is (he talks to Rudy as though he were 20, not 8), but which maddens the conflicted Sammy, who is both eager to see Rudy bond with a man and fearful of Terry’s inability to treat him like a child.

This is the point when I look back at myself at the ripe age of 21 and wonder how I didn’t see what was really going on between Linney and Ruffalo’s two grown-up kids.  Of course, being 21, I wanted to identify with Terry’s angry, aimless, and self-righteous angst.  I could see the point of having responsible people around all right (I had to have someone to make me look angry and rebellious), but such people and the ideas they represented were there to be subverted and stymied.  They were there to be shown (just as Sammy accuses Terry of trying to show Rudy) “that the world is a horrible place and that people suck,” and that when things fall apart you can’t help but notice that they were always feeble to begin with.  But what I notice now is the siblings’ wildly divergent approaches to dealing with this sense of loss, their abandonment, and their emotional vulnerability that finally comes to a head over how to relate to Rudy.  This is one of the film’s most profound and moving tensions, between adhering to (or escaping to) the structure family provides on the one hand, and the powerful desire to do away with all attempts at safety and security when that structure has let you down.

Having nosed into my early 30s now, and with a little more self-awareness, I can see that Terry’s sarcasm and humor is defensive rather than righteous, that his ridiculous posturing is entirely self-involved.  But what makes this point come off so clearly to me now is that Ruffalo is able to channel the sense of justifiable indignity that sixteen-year olds generate while contrasting it with the behavior of the actual child — Rudy — who in many ways is more adult and better equipped to deal with human relationships. Likewise, it is a major credit to Linney (for whom this film is a career-defining performance and garnered her an Oscar nomination) that she is able to lend humanity to a character that might otherwise be obnoxiously moralizing or superficially demure.  But if we’ve learned one thing from the major proponents of the aesthetic of the small-town grotesque (Here’s looking at you, Sherwood Anderson), it’s that the characters that seem to have it all together are really two sharp pokes with a stick from a breakdown and a naked streak down Main Street.  Of course, Sammy’s break with convention comes in the form of an adulterous affair with her new boss (a nasally and extremely annoying Matthew Broderick), but we nonetheless learn that where Terry’s talent is in rubbing his angst in other people’s faces, Sammy’s is hiding and sheltering her disappointment. Both try to drag one another into their own world, confident that their way is the best way to deal with life.

The film’s title, that sentimental phrase, is never uttered but hangs in the air over the final scene, in which a disappointed Sammy waits with Terry for the bus that will once again take him out of town and away from her.   I like to think that what passes between them, amidst the crying and the disappointment, is an answer to the existential charge that the world really is a malevolent place out to take you down.  While this can be one of the most stubborn conclusions for a child to shake following the implosion of a family for whatever reason, it is a testament to Lonergan’s artful direction and screenwriting that what triumphs in this instance is the reference, no matter how oblique, to the consolation we all hope to find in family, even when that family has splintered and broken.

Though the film ends with a parting, the overriding feeling which emerges is that Sammy and Terry have become more aware of one another as adults, no small feat in itself for brothers and sisters from broken families.  Of course, we who live in the world outside Scottsvile know that this is not always a lasting awareness and that people continue to change and reevaluate what they want.  But as I watched Laura Linney drive to work as the film faded out, I couldn’t help but notice (thanks to the score; see “Free-Floating Thoughts” below) the hint of change in the air.  Watching this movie ten years on, I’m tempted to simply say that there are too many messed up families in the world.  You Can Count On Me grants us an honest portrayal of how people deal with loss, how we hurt each other, and how we can perhaps start to put the pieces back together.

Free-Floating Thoughts:

  • Executive Producer Martin Scorsese?  Didn’t see that one coming.
  • My God, whatever happened to Gaby Hoffman?  From little Karen “People Will Come” Kinsella in Field Of Dreams to Maizy Russell in the John Candy vehicle Uncle Buck (both 1989), she always had that wonky-toothed, silly-mouthed, wee girl thing down pat.  But Lonergan and his casting director have pulled her out of the acting ether to play a jilted Worcester teen with a bun in the oven opposite Ruffalo’s itinerant day laborer-cum-lobster fisherman (see next thought).
  • I think you could have transplanted Ruffalo’s Terry onto George Clooney’s swordfish boat in The Perfect Storm without batting an eyelash.
  • Lonergan and his cinematographer are quite obviously fond of what I would call gratuitous ‘town shots,’ with rolling hills and a bucolic score (see below) that make one wonder if Natty Bumpo isn’t going to emerge from the tree line leather-chested and full of righteous frontier vengeance.
  • I would be curious to watch You Can Count On Me and The Savages (another brother-sister drama with Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman – 2008) back to back.
  • Dear lord, it’s finally happened.  Ferris Bueller has turned into his father.
  • Nine times out of ten, little Rudy does not sink that confidence-inspiring 8-ball.  Nine times out of ten. But hooray Hollywood!
  • Does anyone else find it kind of amusing when Ken Lonergan, in his cameo as the town priest, states rather frankly that he does in fact like listening to the whole town’s emotional, sexual, and intoxication–related problems?
  • Perhaps I’m letting the haze of emotional connection (fallacy!) blur my critical vision, but aside from Kieran’s more inspired moments in Igby Goes Down, I find Rory Culkin’s performance in this film one of the most genuine in the long line of Culkin über-youth characters we’ve been treated to over the years. He isn’t a savant or a prodigy, he doesn’t foil burglars or deliver those profound, amusing, or perspicacious comments we’ve come to expect from the ‘observant child’ (see brother Macaulay in Uncle Buck).  But at the same time, like a prodigy, he seems to lack some of the typical child-like wildness and unpredictability one would expect from an 8-year-old boy.  And in a way, this is why Terry’s homecoming reveals not the ways in which Rudy Jr. is more mature, but as with Terry, the ways in which he development has stalled.
  • On first viewing this film I think I was mesmerized by Lesley Barber’s Bach-inspired score, which really wants to stick to the remote Catskills town as though the cello were the long lost component of Appalachian Americana (It’s Boz Scaggs meets Yo Yo Ma!).  While this may seem like an instant mismatch (cello?  Americana?  Surely not.  Pass me the fiddle!), there is a certain consonance in the way Barber’s compositions underpin what is most unchanging in the film’s setting (the town itself, its residents–who never forget a face, the tragedy that binds Sammy and Terry together).  In turn, it is the film’s moments of rollicking Steve Earle-inspired folk rock and country that mark the characters’ changing perceptions of themselves and their relation to a world that has for so long seemed terrifying and malevolent.  At times the transition between the two modes seems rough, but it also highlights one of the film’s characteristic tensions between Sammy’s stable, reserved, and responsible reaction to the tragedy of her parents’ death, and Terry’s explosive, chaotic, and rebellious rejection of the world revealed by that tragedy.  Where Barber’s score really does work, though (and I’m dangerously close to falling into the pit of sentimentality here), is in the final scene where Sammy and Terry are saying their goodbyes.  For perhaps the first time throughout, the score doesn’t seem to override the characters and what they’re saying.  Instead, it subtly underlines the moment (one of the very few moments, I might add) in which Sammy and Terry recognize the unchanging scar that binds them together.  It’s sentimental and a bit cloying, yeah.  But at the same time, it’s the type of moment of clarity that people actually experience after going out of their way to protect themselves from each other by hurting one another.