Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me is a quiet but cogent reply to a handful of screen genres that have exhausted their audience goodwill. Had it with contrived romantic comedies where lovers are kept apart through means artificial and superficial? Here's a different kind of love story, rooted in the impossible, unshakable bonds of family. Rolling your eyes at cynical tearjerkers that seek to "inspire" by applauding the viewer for a penny's worth of moral outrage? Get refreshed with a story rooted in the labyrinthine personality crises and prosaic pleasures of a recognizably real world. Infuriated by movies that treat religion as a flat, mundane battleground where white hats and black hats duke it out with the aid of appalling special effects? You Can Count on Me addresses your needs as well. It's a cinematic panacea.
Lonergan's debut film as a director—he wrote the original screenplay for Analyze This—stars Laura Linney as Sammy, a loan officer and single mother who lives in a small New York town in the house in which she grew up. As the film opens, she's preparing for a visit from her younger brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo), a perpetually grousing drifter who's back home only to borrow money so that he can take care of a little problem with his girlfriend. But what was intended as a brief reunion gets extended when Sammy's new boss, Brian (played by Matthew Broderick at his most officious), complains about her daily use of "personal time" to pick up her son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), from school. Sammy asks Terry to run that errand for a few days, and the uncle-nephew relationship that develops both alters and reinforces a longstanding family dynamic.
It's not every movie that can make an appointment with a school bus into an edge-of-your-seat moment of tension, but as we wait nervously to see if Terry will show up on time every day, it becomes obvious that Lonergan has a rare grasp of the real drama of everyday life.
Lonergan honed this gift first as a playwright, and You Can Count on Me has the musicality of speech and the precise placement of actors that one would expect from an artist used to getting the most out of a stage. Yet You Can Count on Me is far from stagy. Lonergan explores the freedom of brevity that cinema allows, cutting scenes just when we know all we need to know; and although his visual style is far from dynamic, the director finds effective ways to shoot the same rooms and the same streets without unnecessarily repeating himself.
The film's greatest benefit, though, comes from the casting. Ruffalo toes a precarious line as the oft-obstinate Terry, displaying enough humor and charm to earn sympathy for the moments when he's deliberately hurtful. As for Linney, she maintains the studied naturalness that has made her one of the most off-puttingly showy actresses since the early days of Meryl Streep. But here, the strenuously "relaxed" performance fits her character's finely honed self-image. And in the second half of the picture, as Terry's bad influence begins to hold sway, Linney's controlled persona also slips a thrilling little bit.
There are a few clever, writerly snatches of dialogue that keep Lonergan's debut effort from being pitch-perfect, and there's a certain emotional and thematic reserve that may make this slice of life seem skillful but underwhelming—that is, until the final scene, when the string of short, finely observed interactions culminates in a farewell as honestly tearful as any in cinema history. But if there's a substantial flaw with You Can Count on Me, it's only that the movie is a hard sell, especially when the walk-up crowd asks for a description of what the movie's about. The lack of name stars and a plot that sounds more like neighborhood gossip than a rip-roaring yarn could be crippling; then again, those who need a bigger hook might find a sharp one lodged deep in the meat.
So if anyone asks, tell them the film is about a man and a woman dealing with moral responsibilities in a world where God may be absent. Sammy and Terry have been orphaned since childhood, and while Sammy is a regular churchgoer and Terry is a cranky agnostic, both are frustrated that they have neither a parent nor a pastor to establish firmly what's right and what's wrong (shades of The Cider House Rules). Two-thirds of the way through the movie, Sammy's minister (played by Lonergan himself) comes to talk with Terry about his lack of spirituality, and the scene is both funny and cracklingly relevant; Terry attempts to be polite and prickly while ultimately turning his distaste for the scolding back on his sister, pushing their relationship into one of its periodic down cycles.
If this description of conflicted folks grappling with faith and rage doesn't play, tell people that You Can Count on Me is about a brother and sister who love each other deeply. Perhaps a prurient curiosity will lure potential viewers into an experience of remarkable purity.