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You Can Count on Me

DVD enthusiasts are known to salivate on cue at the prospect of slipping the latest action extravaganza into their player's eager tray, cranking up the volume knob on their two-foot-high DTS-ready receiver, and submitting their frenzied neurons to the merciless assault of crisply rendered bright lights and large sounds. What could be more exciting? Well, that — or perhaps a quiet slice-of-life drama set in a small town, where the only action is emotional, and the only carnage is the silent toll of self-destruction. No matter how detailed or creative the CGI effects, nor how dazzling or preposterous the stunt work, the fact is that summer blockbusters will always fall short of the rare, perfectly realized sleeper hit that zeroes in on human nature with impeccable incision, humor, and honesty. Director Kenneth Lonergan has made one of those films. Lonergan's You Can Count on Me (2000) begins with a car wreck. It is sudden and off-screen, and it makes orphans of young Sammy and Terry, who, into their adulthood, continue to deal with the shocking and life-shaking loss of their parents. As an adult, Sammy (Laura Linney) has tamed her irresponsible inclinations through necessity — as a single mother she must look out for her bright and sensitive son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Sammy's brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo), with no such anchor, drifts aimlessly and hopelessly from town to town, courting trouble and scraping with the law. With his young girlfriend "in a bad way," Terry returns to his hometown of Scottsville simply to borrow money from his sister, but Sammy convinces him to stay, eager to reconnect with her one family member and desperate for her son to know his uncle and feel the influence of an adult male. If only Terry were an adult — he is still essentially the same mopey, confused child who lost his parents, prone to juvenile outbursts and thoughtless self-destruction. Such goes a long way toward aggravating Sammy's intense need to worry, both for her brother and his affectionate recklessness with her boy. Terry's presence also stirs Sammy's wild side, and soon she is engaged in her own bout of emotional confusion.

*          *          *

If the plot summary sounds deathly serious, consider writer-director Lonergan's previous film credits as scribe for Analyze This and (yes) The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. You Can Count on Me's dialogue crackles with wit and wry observation, even during its most poignant moments, and the chemistry between cast members is as genuine and warm and rough-edged as that of any real family or small-town community. Linney, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance (and won several smaller, smarter awards, as did Lonergan and the film as a whole), heads a cast of startling breakthrough performances, each of which, no matter how antagonistic, invites themselves into the viewer's heart. Sammy initially appears as a grounded figure of responsibility, but as the film progresses, Linney beautifully reveals just how tough a struggle it is for her to maintain her sanity and favor her best impulses while many others lurk beneath. Ruffalo's Terry is an endearing, frustrating sad-sack, so plainly in need of an authority figure, but nonetheless bristling at the prospect of accountability. Culkin, in his major debut (he previously played "young" Richie Rich in his brother Macauley's 1994 star vehicle), is a terrific talent, and he builds an unbelievable rapport with the adult actors. You Can Count on Me also features another hilarious, excellent indie turn by Matthew Broderick as Sammy's difficult new boss. For Linney, Ruffalo and Culkin, the only fear is that they deliver such vivid personal performances that it may be difficult to ever accept them in future films as other characters. It's a testament to the cast — and to Lonergan's astounding dexterity as a debutante director — that You Can Count on Me manages to nimbly dance from laughter to tears in a quick turn and yet never succumb to the deathtraps of slapstick or maudlin preciousness. After the high-profile, over-hyped blockbusters of recent years have faded into obscurity, this small film will remain memorable. Oddly for a recent film — but understandable for a low-budget indie — the anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) on Paramount's DVD release of You Can Count on Me features some unfortunate wear carried over from the source print, with minor flecks and scratches occasionally popping up, especially during the opening titles. However, the audio is quite solid in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Surround. Lonergan provides an amusing, candid, educational commentary in which he discusses in depth his approach to the material and its realization (while bemoaning the artificiality he despises in studio films). The track would make a fine stand-alone lecture to beginning directors who care to mine something valuable out of their material. Also with cast interviews, trailer. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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