Main cast: Laura Linney (Samantha “Sammy” Prescott), Mark Ruffalo (Terry Prescott), Rory Culkin (Rudy), Matthew Broderick (Brian Everett), and Jon Tenney (Bob Stegerson)
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
You Can Count on Me is a simple movie that manages to engage my emotions completely with its honest, blunt portrayal of relationships. Except for the sentimental exchange towards the last frame which is still effective enough to move me to tears, this movie strays away from sentimental muzak or pap, relying instead on the simple, honest depictions of life, ugly or pretty. And it’s just subliminally wonderful.
When their parents died in a car crash, wild kids Sammy and Terry Prescott’s lives are changed. Sammy has to be responsible, and she takes it in stride, suppressing her yearnings and desires to be a responsible single mother to her son Rudy. Her brother Terry veers into the opposite direction, carving a career for himself as a mega screw-up as he drifts all over the country.
One day, Terry calls Sammy. Can he come visit? Of course. Despite everything, Sammy and Terry remain the closest of siblings. Terry’s arrival, however, soon sparks a chain of events that have both reexamining their lives.
Laura Linney, who plays one of the most interesting characters in The Truman’s Show, is amazing here as Sammy, a woman who tries so hard to be good. In a sense, she doesn’t know whether to be aghast at or envy her brother. Mark Ruffalo is Ms Linney’s perfect foil, playing Terry in a mix of low self-esteem and arrogant cockiness. Never mind that they don’t look like siblings at all, they have the perfect chemistry as siblings who love/hate each other and can’t let go like every sibling do. Sammy can’t help mothering Terry like she does every man in her life, and Terry resents that. Meanwhile, Terry becomes Rory’s substitute father, with bittersweet consequences.
There’s also a subplot, comic relief in the form of Sammy’s love triangle between her, her very married boss/antagonist Brian, and a dull but dependable lawyer Bob. She knows Brian has a six-month pregnant wife, she knows, but she has to, well, perform fellatio on Bob in his car. Matthew Broderick and Ms Linney play each other off very well, he a smarmy but charming fellow who is obviously attracted to this underling of his who just keep vexing him at every turn. This is not a victim situation for Sammy, by the way – she walks into this affair with her eyes wide open.
Not everything in You Can Count on Me is angst and despair. Terry and Sammy may have their demons, but they don’t spend hours whining about it. And the way they try to make do, it’s inspiring. Mixing humor with stark realism, this movie succeeds where an endless parade of Hallmark movies couldn’t in drawing me into these characters’ lives. Some of the best scenes in this movie include Terry trying to comfort a guilt-ridden Sammy by offering her some pot (her response: a wistful “You got pot?”) and when Sammy invites the family priest (a cameo by the director Kenneth Lonergan) to give Terry some spiritual counseling. The latter is actually an inspiring prep talk that brings out the best performance from Mr Ruffalo.
There is no easy resolution in You Can Count on Me – in fact, there is no resolution at all, but promises. Sammy starts rekindling her relationship with Bob, while Brian doesn’t seem to be able to let go. Terry doesn’t become the entrepreneur of the year, he is still a screw-up, but he will try, and he will still be Sammy’s precious little brother. By eschewing sentimental happy endings for one of realism – life doesn’t stop after the credit rolls – the movie delivers the final home run. Inspiring, beautiful, and heartbreaking all at once, it is one of the highlights of my cinematic patronage this year.