Family Values

You Can Count on Me starts small but works its way to bigness

Dec 20, 2000 at 4:00 am
The moods of Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me are so artfully mingled that it's difficult to get a fix on this highly personal independent feature. Set in a quiet little town in upstate New York's lovely Catskill Mountains, it is at once a drama about the unresolved traumas of childhood and a sly comedy about how sibling conflict tests the limits of family love. Don't worry about defining categories or genres too precisely, though: Lonergan comes at you on his own terms, and that's his strength.

Made on a tiny budget, Count is Exhibit A for this year's defense of well-written, richly nuanced movies that value human behavior more than 30-car smashups, gratuitous sex and all the other Hollywood evils that presidential candidates like to moralize about. If you have an IQ above room temp, you may find this gem irresistible. The pooh-bahs at the Sundance Film Festival certainly did: Lonergan was co-winner of this year's grand jury prize.

The principals include The Truman Show's Laura Linney as a wounded single mother, Sammy Prescott, who's trying to build a respectable life for herself and her 8-year-old son, Rudy, in sleepy Scottsville; and appealing newcomer Mark Ruffalo as Sammy's wayward brother, Terry, who comes home to visit with a résumé featuring odd jobs in a half-dozen states, a fistful of broken romances and a stint in jail. Superficially they are opposites, Sammy and Terry. The tightly wound homebody seems to have nothing in common with the charming drifter, save a gene or two. But below the surface lies a far more complex and intriguing relationship, born of tragedy yet buoyed by wit. This is one of the most engaging studies of a sister and a brother since the Borgias quit poisoning the Chianti.

For Lonergan, whose commercial efforts include the screenplays for Analyze This and Rocky and Bullwinkle, Count is an ideal opportunity to establish himself as a writer/director to be reckoned with. In concert with a terrific cast -- which also includes Matthew Broderick and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin's amazing little brother Rory -- he does just that. The family dynamics here are not just complicated, they are touchingly funny. Imagine the aimless Terry, forever drawn to vice, hauling his little nephew off to a bar in the middle of the night to play pool against the locals for money -- and to strengthen the bond between man-child and child. Imagine the buttoned-up, churchgoing Sammy, partly liberated now by her wastrel brother's visit, igniting an impulsive affair with her geeky (and thoroughly married) boss (Broderick) down at the local bank. Imagine a fatherless kid lucking out in ways neither he nor the audience can anticipate: From his mother he gets stability; from irresponsible Uncle Terry he gets some long-overdue joy.

The supposed grownups need a bit of that, too. As teenagers, they were numbed by their parents' deaths in a car accident, and we become present witness to the toll of that terrible hurt. Sammy has tried to take refuge in hearth and home, Terry in running away. But now that they are reunited in their dead parents' house, something has to give. Happily, Lonergan knows just what it is -- the emotional logjam that has imprisoned Sammy and Terry all these years. To his credit, this canny moviemaker doesn't inflict any easy answers (or happy endings) on his characters. Instead, he explores the constant messiness of life and the little victories it reluctantly yields up. Many movies with subject matter this delicate veer instantly into schmaltz, but Lonergan is never tempted. He doesn't even let little Rudy cry, although there were plenty of chances here to turn on the spigots full blast.

Some of the smaller, throwaway moments in You Can Count on Me are the funniest and the most telling. When a well-meaning but foolish minister (played by Lonergan) visits the Prescott household with the idea of giving counsel, Lonergan produces an astonishingly contemporary, pocket-size essay on love, God and family values that other thinkers might have taken many chapters, or at least several hours of screen time, to achieve. Sammy's deadpan question cinches the deal: "What is the church's position these days on adultery?" she asks. Thus do the forces of blind faith and moral relativism collide in one pithy punchline. You might also love, as I did, the hilarious motel tryst shared by Broderick's anal-retentive banker and Linney's confused adventurer. Not very sexy and extraordinarily authentic, it captures the kind of mortifying yet glorious moment many sinners have experienced but would never talk about with anyone.

Pint-size Culkin nearly steals the show as the feisty but resolutely uncute kid, but let's also give high marks to the adult cast and to composer Lesley Barber. His score, performed by a classical quartet, perfectly reflects the Prescott family quandaries, their often comic search for fulfillment and the difficulties of finding peace. In the cry of an oboe or the song of a plucked violin string, we can sometimes hear volumes. So, too, with You Can Count on Me: In this modest but brilliant little movie, we find ourselves immersed in life itself.