Few movies are as nuanced and insightful about family as You Can Count on Me (2000; dir. Kenneth Lonergan). Many films either ignore family or view it as a source of melodrama, pain, and oppression. It may be these things, but it is also more. There are some moments of melodrama in this film, some anguish and pain, but mostly it is understated and subtle, and effective as a result. The central characters are a brother and sister whose parents were killed in an accident when they were young. Fifteen years later, the brother and sister are adults. The brother, Terry Prescott (Mark Ruffalo), lives a drifting and unsettled adult life. He moves from one job to another, one state to another, and apparently from one relationship to another. His sister Samantha (Laura Linney) is settled and conservative. She has a son by a marriage that failed. She works in a bank whose new manager (Matthew Broderick) causes disruption when he comes on the scene. He insists that everyone in the bank office adhere to a strict schedule, even in the face of family emergencies, and that workers not have unprofessional color schemes on their computers. Samantha has difficulties with him. She also has an affair with him, despite his six-month pregnant wife, despite the long-term suitor who has proposed and is waiting for her answer. As uncentered as her brother’s life is, Samantha’s is more so. She’s inflexible (like her boss, but in a different way), she’s overprotective of her son (though not excessively so), and she tends to find problems and misbehavior in others as a way of ignoring her own issues. She tends to make rash decisions, as her affair with her boss and her failed marriage show. She’s full of self-contradictions and paradoxes.
This summary may make You Can Count on Me seem the epitome of melodrama, yet the film doesn’t seem this way. Despite the careful approach to its subject, certain recognizable patterns do emerge. We’re not surprised that Samantha ends up having sex with her boss, despite their antagonism for each other. Opposites do attract, and they’re not really that different after all. And it’s not surprising that Terry’s return to town after seven years of silence and absence will bring conflict and difficulty to his sister. It’s not surprising that he develops a close relationship with Samantha’s son Rudy. Yet director Lonergan works through these Hollywood patterns in a way that seems to reinvent them.
Terry and Samantha’s characters are self-reflexive. Even as they are making mistakes, they’re also judging themselves. Terry is rebellious in various perverse ways, and he has a creative way of not doing what Samantha wants him to do. While he’s looking after her son, he’s been told that the boy must go to bed by 10:00. Instead, he takes Rudy to a local bar to play pool with him. (They team up and win $100). He picks the boy up from school and, instead of taking him to the babysitter Samantha has scheduled arranged for, takes him to a construction site and teaches him to use a hammer. And in one of the most important scenes he takes the boy to meet his father, whom he has never met. Terry is fatalistic and convinced that his life is meaningless and without value. He makes choices that tend to confirm these attitudes. Yet his motives are not entirely perverse. He senses the boy’s need for companionship and believes he needs to be confronted with the realities of the world he will one day live in (just as he as a young boy was confronted with those realities in his parents’ deaths).
While Samantha has built a life for herself around order and routine and settlement in one place, Terry has followed exactly the opposite path. Each of them longs for what the other has: freedom, lack of responsibility, stability, home, place. While they find it difficult to live with each other, they also need each other as well. Each has taken a different course adjusting to life without their parents. The film moves by stealth in demonstrating the entanglement of their lives.
One of the characters most affected by the deaths of Terry and Samantha’s parents is Rudy, whose plaintive, expressionless face belies loneliness and confusion. While his mother has tried to protect him from the world he will grow up into, Terry plunges him right in, and becomes a sort of surrogate father figure as well. Rory Culkin is wonderful in his role. The subtle acting in this film, especially that of Laura Linney, is a major virtue.
The film appears to take place in New England, in a small town named Worcester in the Appalachian foothills. This is the town where Samantha and Terry grew up. The past is always present, always impinging on Samantha and Terry’s lives. For Samantha it’s a protective home. For Terry it’s oppressive. He tells Rudy: “It's narrow. It's dull. It's a dull, narrow town full of dull, narrow people who don't know anything except what things are like right around here. They have no perspective whatsoever, no scope. They might as well be living in the 19th century 'cause they have no idea what's going on, and if you try and tell 'em that they wanna fucking kill you.”
The Methodist minister whom Samantha goes to with her problems seems absolutely clueless. In the midst of her affair with her boss, she suddenly decides to go see the minister. We are sure she’s going to ask him for advice about her affair, but instead she seeks advice about how to deal with her brother—a typical example of how she deflects her own issues on to others. She returns for a second meeting and this time does talk about the affair. She tells the minister that she needs help, not psychological mumbo jumbo. But mumbo-jumbo, mumbling in general, is all he can offer. The slow-witted, lifeless look on his face suggests absolute emptiness, though he tries hard to help, and when he does have a conversation with Terry, they seem to connect.
There are elements of comedy and tragedy in You Can Count on Me, all of them presented in a quiet, unassuming manner.