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You Can Count On Me

A Cannes Winner Unearths the Blithe and Bitter In Daily Life

By Erik Blankinship and Pilapa Esara

Written and Directed by Ken Lonergan

Starring Matthew Broderick, Amy Ryan, Michael Countryman, Rory Caulkin, Adam LeFevre, Halley Feiffer, and Whitney Vance

Rated R

You Can Count On Me is a poignant movie about a sister and a brother, written with heart and authenticity. This film treats you like a friend who’s been inadvertently asked to sit in the living room as a family drama unfolds. The characters are real and their challenges tangible. Screenwriter and director Ken Lonergan has come out of the depths of cliched film scribing (see Rocky and Bullwinkle, or, rather, don’t) and delivered a rough gem of a film. It is has been widely praised, most highly with the 2000 Cannes’ Grand Jury Prize.

Actress Laura Linney depicts Sammy, a single mother of an eight year old boy. Sammy’s day to day routine is suddenly disrupted by the appearance of her estranged younger brother, Rory (Mark Ruffalo). Despite his delinquent lifestyle and his admission of visiting after a year only for cash, Sammy wants her brother to stay if only so she can take care him. The story unfolds with deeds of ambiguous morality and moments of personal redemption.

Although Sammy and Rory were orphaned in childhood, the death of their parents acts as a mere backdrop for characters whose complexity doesn’t derive completely from one tragic source. Unlike with Party of Five, the viewer isn’t annoyingly pestered with dialogue that rants of self-therapy and contrived angst. This film doesn’t preach and it doesn’t overdramatize. It grants the audience intellect and patience. This film is certainly a story worth paying for. The cast of virtual unknowns deliver performances of siblings you feel are your own, or have met in other families. At times we found ourselves staring into Linney’s character’s eyes looking for answers to her family’s problems, and her eyes revealed real concern and compassion.

The “star” power of this film is Matthew Broderick, who has claimed his next great role since Election. As a small town bank manager, he nitpicks on his staff’s timeliness, presentation skills, and even their font color choices. The pettiness of his peeves seem all too real to the nervous bank staff, and that real world, everyday workplace anxiety is conveyed to the audience.

The other “star” in this film is little Rory Caulkin, younger brother of Home Alone (now stage actor) Macaulay Caulkin. The kid is a clone of his brothers at the same age; those Caulkin parents birthed gold mines. He is at times hard to understand, mumbling his lines, but even that makes the movie feel more real -- he’s a little kid and of course he isn’t all too clear! Little Caulkin actually comes across as a likable kid with real problems: he has begun to fantasize about his unknown bastard father of which he knows nothing.

We fear we might be overstating the omnipresent realness of the character’s lives so as to lead the reader into believing that the minutiae of these character’s lives will leave one numb. Rather, the characters eat, drink, go to work, do household repairs, and, despite the everyday, a convincing story and a rich familial theme illuminates their lives. This authenticity drives the emotional arc of the film.

The editing of this film is unlike anything we have seen in a theater for a long while. Dialogue scenes, regularly shot with the creativity of a WB sitcom, here are amazingly refreshing. Moments of familial intimacy in public places are filmed and edited so as to jar you. The camera is momentarily removed from the tripod and slides ever so slightly from emotional framed closeups as character’s drift. It is subtle, unnerving, and intimate. Martin Scorsese is the film’s executive producer, and we imagine had his hand in the cutting. Film editor Anne McCabe is one to be watched.

The film has some confusing elements, like the conflation of the United Methodist church and pastor with a markedly Catholic facade. Despite denominational issues, the presence of the church in the film and the message it delivers, one not cluttered by spiritual issues which could all too easily offend those not looking for pedantic preaching (ourselves included), strikes true.

Screening at the nearby Kendall Cinema, this film should not be missed.