(A quick aside before I get into the actual review (because I desperately want to try and sound more professional and like a real film critic on here but there are occasional points that I need to make that don’t fit into my actual reviews). A lot of my personal friends have made fun of me for the way that I compiled the list for this blog. I spent a week or so eating into every last second of my free time to craft a massive list of every film that was ever nominated in specific, major categories at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Independent Spirit Awards. Then I added every movie from my NY Times 1000 greatest movies book. Then I picked movies that somehow didn’t end up on any of that which I enjoy and thought would be fun to review. To top it all off, a year and a half after making the initial list (which I had to make twice because at one point, I lost the original list. Now, it’s saved in the Cloud), I added another 1000 films from the 10001 movies you have to see before you die list. There’s obviously a lot of crossover here and I delete duplicates. Still, there’s thousands of films on my list. They aren’t all winners (*cough* How to Marry a Millionaire *cough*), but there are moments when the hassle of making my list and sitting through the occasionally shitty award-bait film pays off. I would have never heard of Conversations With Other Women let alone watched it had it not been for my list, and the same goes for British indie Nil by Mouth, but they’re now two of the rare films to get perfect scores on this blog. I have another film to add to the list of movies that would have completely escaped my attention had I not started this blog, and it would have been a shame if I had missed Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me because it has one of the strongest scripts I’ve ever seen.)
In a world of Fellinis, Bergmans, and Malicks, it can be too easy to undervalue a film whose strengths rely solely on those old-fashioned concepts of a strong script and human performances. How many times have you heard someone say they liked a movie but they found it to be visually uninteresting. Without coming out and stating it directly, many find a lack of cinematic artifice in modern film-making to be a deficit of character. There’s an easily explainable reason for this. While I refute the naysayers that believe we’ve completely exhausted the well of truly original storytelling (one need look no further than the ouvre of David Lynch or Charlie Kaufman to see that isn’t true), it’s safe to say that the old stream of inspiration has become a trickle of staid reboots, remakes, and sequels. These days, directors have to wow an audience with head-spinning, post-modern mental gymnastics to stand out from the pack because some variation of their story has already been told.
Occasionally though, a film slips through the cracks with such a pure and honest reflection of the world that originality and style be damned. It pierces that great veil of the human experience and exposes truths we’ve kept at bay and begs a solution to questions we didn’t know we had. Gary Oldman’s highly autobiographical Nil by Mouth was British poverty and addiction and abuse rolled into brutal and terrifying package. The overt (and some say distracting) style and haute couture of Tom Ford’s A Single Man couldn’t overwhelm the haunting tragedy of a closeted British professor on the day he’s decided to commit suicide. Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 family drama You Can Count on Me is as straight forward and direct a film in terms of style that’s ever been made. Yet, Lonergan’s script cuts closer to the truth of family, disappointment, and coming to terms with our own limitations than any film I’ve ever seen. Whether you’re a cinephile or a casual film lover, its power is astonishing.
If there’s ever a genre that’s been beaten to death, it’s the family drama. Watching a dysfunctional family fight and heal is one of the oldest stories there are. However, its themes are so universal that if its done well and given the proper perspective and veracity it deserves, family dramas can transcend their humble origins to be something so much more. Perhaps because Kenneth Lonergan (who also wrote the script) isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel and perhaps because he doesn’t try to use any of the typical cinematic tricks to distract from any potential shortcomings in his script, You Can Count on Me becomes on of those pictures. Focusing his lens on a brother and sister who were bound by the death of their parents and then torn apart by life, it’s an intimate search into forgiveness and understanding but with the honest grasp that sometimes reconciliation is beyond our abilities.
When they were small children, Samantha Prescott (The Savages‘ Laura Linney) and Terry Prescott (The Kids Are All Right‘s Mark Ruffalo) lost their parents in a car accident. Samantha decided to stay in their small Catskills town of Scottsdale where she got knocked up and abandoned by the layabout father of her now 8 year old son Rudy (Scott Pilgrim‘s Rory Culkin). She just manages to get by with a dead end job as a loan officer at the local bank where the new boss Brian (Ferris Bueller‘s Matthew Broderick) is forcing her to stop digging into her own lunch hour to take her son to the babysitter after school. She has a loveless sexual relationship with a local man, Bob (Jon Tenney), that satisfies a deep seated need for male approval and distracts her when her son starts asking awkward questions about his disappeared father.
Terry on the other hand walked a more exciting but troubled path. Raging against the conventionality of Scottsdale (and the classic small-town rebel complaint that there isn’t anything to do), Terry left town as soon as he could. He wandered the country, a transient nomad, picking up small-time jobs here and there. Though he seems to love Alaska, he could never stick in one place for long, and eventually, a stint in jail in Florida and an exhaustion of his funds (which were indirectly implied to be supplying a serious drug habit) sends him to his sister’s doorstep to ask for some money. When Terry’s girlfriend tries to kill herself in his absence, Terry decides to stay with Samantha indefinitely. Though the flawed but ultimately lovable Terry instantly bonds with Rudy (who desperately seeks a father figure), his spite and irresponsibility mean its simply a matter of time before he ends up hurting everyone around him yet again.
The phrase “fully realized characters” has rarely meant as much as it does in You Can Count on Me. Terry and Samantha (and to a lesser extent supporting players like Rudy and Brian) are multi-layered, endlessly dynamic creations who never act in the way you expect but always (and I can’t emphasize that enough) follow the logic created for them within the context of the script. While on the surface, the gainfully employed, loving single mother Samantha may seem like the more well-adjusted of the siblings, but you quickly learn throughout the film that she can be just as impetuous and self-destructive as her brother. And despite Terry’s spiteful ways, he’s seemingly more intelligent than his sister and has his own (tragic) philosophy on how to view the world. These characters learn lessons but don’t change. If they have character arcs, they are slow and shift changes that simply strip away to a new layer of these fascinating creations.
The performances are as subtle and powerful as the script. Laura Linney (one of the most under-appreciated actresses of her generation) is flawless as the beleaguered Samantha. She gives Samantha a desperate tenderness. Throughout the film as one criticism after another is laid at her by her boss, by Terry, or by her son, Samantha flashes a nervous smile and her face belies the wounds of harsh words. Despite all of the tragedy that has befallen her (and her constant mishandling of life’s situations), Samantha still exudes a natural warmth. Though she often messes up, it is never done to intentionally hurt someone (the opposite of Terry’s behavior), though she often does. With Linney’s natural and complex performance, Samantha weaves in out as a repressed single mother, a dispassionate lover, a scorned and upset sister, and an angry woman, hurt by the way the world’s treated her.
Mark Ruffalo is no less impressive. In one of the film’s best scenes, a drunk Terry wanders into Rudy’s room (which used to be Terry’s when he was a child), lights up a cigarette, and proceeds to “educate” his nephew on the truths of the world. Shattering his nephew’s illusions about Rudy’s father once and for all, Mark Ruffalo gets right to the heart of Terry. Which is to say, a brutally honest survivor who has internalized his fatalism and deep-rooted suspicions that nothing will ever end well into a cynical shield that protects him from the world around him. That would be sad but fine except he’s hell-bent on converting every other soul around him to his jaded world view. Ruffalo captures Terry’s intellectual spark, his endless reservoir of anger, and his manic energy. As Terry shifts and twitches in his seat, you see the restless soul that will never find a place to call home.
Few films have so successfully realized on scene after scene of great individual moments without sacrificing any unity of the final picture. Still, You Can Count on Me is full to the brim with memorable scenes that all add to the greater portrait of the Prescott family. In one of the climactic moments of the film, Terry (without Samantha’s approval) decides that it would be wise to introduce Rudy to his real father, and although it’s as disastrous as you’d imagine, it nails the dichotomy of Terry’s character where he’s trying to do something good but makes things worse in the end. In Samantha’s most defining scene, she sits down with her priest (played by the film’s director, Kenneth Lonergan) to discuss her angst about cheating on her boyfriend with a married man (whose wife is pregnant), and she seeks punishment and anger for all of the flaws in herself she can’t seem to correct. Whether it’s these moments or Terry taking Rudy out to play pool at a bar or Samantha’s battle of the will’s with her boss, You Can Count on Me is the rare film where every scene is a winner.
The old movie adage, “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry,” is overused and meaningless, but Kenneth Lonergan’s script delivers a soul-baring emotional ride. It is a warm and hopeful film (but honest in our human limitations and cognizant that we can only change so much) which is refreshing when so much cinema focuses solely on the negative sides of life. Lonergan has often been called the great American playwright of his generation (where he’s done much of his work), and perhaps it’s his single-minded focus to tell about this family and their pains, but he’s managed to do so much more. He created one of the best American films of the 2000s and one of the most impressive observations of American family life and small town angst that has ever been made.
Final Score: A+