You Can Count on Me is a rare film -- a real movie for grownups. The movie focuses on character more than action, explores the complicated love that grown siblings can share and offers no pat answers or tidy conclusions.
The screenplay won top honors at Sundance last year, and for good reason. The film dispatches with the backstory at the very beginning (so don't get caught at the refreshment stand during the opening credits): a young brother and sister are orphaned by a car accident that kills both of their parents, and that leaves the two children relying upon one another.
That out of the way, the artfully crafted tale next finds Sammy (Laura Linney), the single mother of seven-year-old Rudy (Rory Culkin) in the weeks when her much beloved but ne'er-do-well brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) comes back to the family home in upstate New York. Terry, now a drifter, has come back to borrow money from Sammy because his girlfriend is pregnant. When he decides to stay, Sammy is at first delighted to have her precious brother back in their small town lives, and especially in the life of her son, who longs for a male role model. Terry's immaturity, and other complications, however, conspire to make the arrangement less ideal than Sammy originally imagined.
You Can Count on Me demonstrates that good movies can achieve miraculous alchemy: someplace between well-crafted script and accomplished actor, real characters are created from mere words. All of the major players in You Can Count on Me are superb, both when onscreen alone and when playing against one another. Some of my very favorite scenes were between young Rory Culkin, who looks somewhat like his more famous brother but who has a kind of gravity missing in the older Culkin's acting, and Mark Ruffalo, whose twitchy irresponsibility spells delight and trouble for his young sidekick.
There aren't that many adult actors who really interact well with very young actors, but Ruffalo knows the trick. So, too, the scenes between Linney (who this week received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress) and Matthew Broderick, who plays Sammy's obsessive new boss with whom she undertakes a weird and rather ill-advised affair, ring with some real truth about human relationships.
It is this kind of truth -- that relationships are messy, that you can love someone and still need to send them away, that things don't always turn out for the best nor for the worst, that you get involved in stuff you wish you hadn't -- that You Can Count on Me beautifully explores. Screenwriter and director Ken Lonergan (screenwriter for the hilarious Analyze This) has created a movie for real adults that explores real adult situations. Not just sexual situations, although there are a couple, but the kinds of questions that become even more important: How do I love my siblings, where do I fit into the world, how can I be a good parent? If You Can Count on Me is a little dull visually, not taking advantage of the full palette of film tools, it makes up for it several times over with characters full of life and full of questions.