You Can Count On Me (2000)

2007 Update: It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this 2000 film, and yet I remember moments from it so vividly. Terry and the boy taking a nature walk. The reverend informing Sammy that fornication is a sin. Sammy’s office confrontation with the boss. And yet, I wonder… what has become of Ken Lonergan, who wrote such a delicate, heartfelt screenplay? He was a co-writer on Gangs of New York, and then what?

Turning to the IMDB, I learn that he’s written and directed a drama called Margaret, starring Anna Paquin and Matt Damon. Where is this film?

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Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me is about a young woman trying to leave the past behind and live life on her own terms. And, of course, the past catches up with her.

This Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film is a small movie with a big heart. Lonergan, who also wrote the mediocre comedy Analyze This, strives for something more meaningful here, and the story sounds like it was based on personal experiences.

Set in Scottsville, a quaint small town in upstate New York, the film introduces us to Sammy (Laura Linney of The Exorcism of Emily Rose), a nervous, struggling single mother and bank worker. Sammy lives a seemingly simple life, trying her best to raise her son Rudy and to cope with a tyrannical new boss at the bank. But she is also haunted by the long-ago tragedy of her parents’ untimely death in a car accident.

When her reckless and wandering brother Terry (Mark Rufalo) shows up in Scottsville, their happy reunion takes an abrupt turn into a nasty argument over responsibility and money. The problems in both of their lives surge to the surface, and Sammy and Terry’s lives spiral downward into chaos until they hit bottom and learn something that just might help them back to some semblance, order, and peace.

Laura Linney plays Sammy with such confidence that it makes you wonder how much she actually identifies with the character. Sammy’s just trying to set a good example for her son, even as her own loneliness causes her to stumble into foolish and potentially disastrous errors in judgment. Linney’s performance is a dramatic pendulum, swinging from moral outrage to moral lapses, with amusing and understandable motivations for both. She makes us nervous with the tightwire she walks, but we never stop caring for her all the same.

Rory Culkin (fortunately starting his career out on something more admirable than a goofy Home Alone flick) gives a delicate, quiet performance as Rudy, Sammy’s eight-year-old son, who is watching grownups carefully and learning from what he sees.

Newcomer Mark Ruffalo… give the man an Oscar nomination… makes a strong first impression as Terry, Sammy’s brother, who has drifted around the country with a feeble grasp on order and responsibility, returning home only to occasionally borrow money from his hardworking sister. Ruffalo’s halting speech reveals a man who is poorly educated, lonely, and still a frightened little boy under the unshaven good looks and the cocky Brando-like machismo.

Matthew Broderick and Lonergan himself contribute memorable supporting work as Sammy’s boyfriend and the neighborhood cleric.

In a season of showy, aggressive films, You Can Count On Me is a modest, quiet work but its virtues are profound. (And apparently, audiences and critics appreciate it: the film won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.) Lonergan’s writing is exceptionally honest, sensitive, and revealing. The camerawork isn’t showy; it’s just what it needs to be, standing back and letting us watch, never drawing attention to itself. And the music is equally appropriate, featuring soft country flourishes by Steve Earle.

Lonergan avoids the faults of so many other contemporary American storytellers by refusing to cast his characters in a judgmental light, giving each one just enough dignity to make him or her convincing and sympathetic. I believed in the characters, I winced when they stumbled, and I was moved when they learned and grew. I was especially pleased to see a Christian character portrayed without evident prejudice on the part of the director; he seemed as decent, as sincere, as real as the others, and he also seemed to have some wisdom to impart. In this way, Lonergan reveals himself to be more of an artist than an entertainer.

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Writer and director – Kenneth Lonergan; director of photography – Stephen Kazmierski; editor – Anne McCabe; music – Lesley Barber; production designer – Michael Shaw; producers – John N. Hart, Jeffrey Sharp, Larry Meistrich and Barbara De Fina. Starring Laura Linney (Sammy), Mark Ruffalo (Terry), Matthew Broderick (Brian), Jon Tenney (Bob), Rory Culkin (Rudy), J. Smith-Cameron (Mabel), Josh Lucas (Rudy Sr.), Gaby Hoffmann (Sheila) and Adam LeFevre (Sheriff Darryl). Paramount Classics. 111 minutes. Rated R for sexual situations, strong language and a violent fight scene.

 

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • John

    You Can Count On Me is a wonderful movie. I saw it for the second time while showing it to friends last night. I think they were blown away by the emotional depth and maybe a bit unsettled by the lack of closure. Anyway, I wanted to comment on your point about the priest being portrayed well. I am undecided about that. At best, I think he is portrayed as earnest and caring. But there are also scenes that highlight the fact that he has little to offer, and he comes off as rather wimpy and wishy-washy. Like when he encourages Terry to believe his life is important without having to accept God; or when he refuses to agree with Sammy that adultery is a serious sin. Remember, Sammy is trying to convince Terry the drifter that he needs an anchor in his life. Terry ends up saying that he doesn’t want to believe in something just to relieve him from feeling bad, but because it is true. Interestingly (I thought), at the end of the movie, Terry says he’s going to Alaska because it is beautiful there, and that makes him feel good.

  • SolShine7

    I did a script analysis on this film for my screenwriting class. I really enjoyed the project and the movie. This is Mark Ruffalo’s best performance so far. He’s suc a cutie too.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Wow! That *was* a lot of info!

    And thank you! Now I’m looking forward to The Starry Messenger!

  • Jessica

    This is one of my most favorite movies – in part because it captures something about an older sister/younger brother relationship that really resonated with me (being an older sister to a younger brother).

    I tracked down some info on “Margaret” from the Fox Searchlight Web site – looks like it’s set for a 2007 release, though it didn’t give a month.

    Here’s something for folks that need a Lonergan fix before “Margaret” is released: A couple of years ago I too grew curious about what Mr. Lonergan was up to. I ended up reading the scripts of two plays he’s written “Lobby Hero,” (2001) and “This Is Our Youth,” (1999). (Interesting sidenote: Ruffalo and Lonergan got to know each other during the production of “Youth” – Ruffalo played one of the main characters.) My local library now also has the screenplay for a play Lonergan wrote in 2000 called “The Waverley Gallery,” which I’ll be checking out. Can’t wait to see what “Margaret” is like – the cast looks amazing.

    P.S. Lonergan will also be directing a play he’s written on Broadway starting (supposedly) in April 2007: “The Starry Messenger,” will star Matthew Broderick. A fantastic reason to take a trip to NYC….AND, according to a press release from the Tribeca Film Festival, Lonergan will be adapting that play for the big screen as well!

    Wow. That was a lot of info.


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