Orphaned as children, siblings Sammy and Terry (Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo) have gone their separate ways as adults: The younger, Terry, has drifted from state to state and job to job on a cloud of pot smoke, while Sammy, a former wild child, has remained in the family home, raising her son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), going to church and working at the local bank. When Terry returns to their small, upstate–New York town, it’s to borrow money and split. But as their reunion spontaneously devolves from niceties to angry reproach, it‘s obvious there’s too much baggage to keep lugging around, and we know before they do that Terry will stay and that issues, both long-buried and fresh, will play out.
That‘s about it. There are a few other sideline characters, including Sammy’s on-and-off boyfriend (Jon Tenney) and her petty new boss (Matthew Broderick), but there are no terrible secrets, no life-altering traumas. For as writer-director Kenneth Lonergan tenderly but insistently argues, there is nothing more dramatic, or comical, than the trials and glories of real life.
You Can Count on Me is Lonergan‘s first time directing a feature, and though he has some scripts to his credit (Analyze This, The Lost Army), by his own admission he is a playwright first, having worked extensively in New York theater. It shows all over the film (which itself evolved from a one-act), though not in ways that are immediately obvious. The film is talky, but the dialogue that is its heart and soul isn’t stagy; it has the lived-in cadence of real speech and — as natural conversation does — reveals things about the speakers that even they may not be aware of. When Rudy complains that a short-story homework assignment seems ”unstructured,“ we see that the loose ends left dangling by an absent father and evasive mother have stirred a need for direction. When Terry tells Sammy, ”It‘s all gonna be all right, comparatively,“ we know that neither of them really wants anything more. Lonergan also knows when to leave things unsaid — bad news from a cop, a fight behind closed doors — letting viewers fill in silent spaces themselves.
As for the stage-to-screen acid test, the sense of a real world, free of prosceniums and backdrops — that’s slightly less successful. Though the film by no means feels phony or claustrophobic, there is a reliance on coded sets: the local restaurant when one is trying to be civilized, the local tavern for more clandestine occasions, and the family living room, a comfy neutral space that Sammy violates when, with her own life inching toward chaos, she sics her minister on Terry in an outlandish, catalytic act of projection.
Linney and Ruffalo also hail from the theater, schooled at Juilliard and Stella Adler and on the boards of New York, where chops often matter more than looks. The two are just beautiful enough, in fact, to be in the movies and still remain convincing as authentic folk, and their performances are tremendously moving. Sammy and Terry are, like many sibling pairs, flip sides of the same coin — fair and dark, prim and slack — and both are emotionally unfinished, frozen in place by the death of their parents. Asked why she has entangled herself so foolishly with the men in her life, Sammy answers, ”Because I feel sorry for them,“ and the years she‘s spent on intimate terms with pity come into sharp focus. Meanwhile, all slumped shoulders, sleepy eyes and put-on bravado, Terry easily falls in with Rudy (whom Culkin plays as a quietly needy lightning rod), since he’s never really reached adulthood anyway. What makes Sammy and Terry most affecting of all is that, by movie‘s end, neither has really changed. They do seem headed a little more in the right direction, and in the human drama, or comedy, that’s the best you can hope for, comparatively.