A single mother’s life is thrown into turmoil after her struggling, rarely-seen younger brother returns to town. (logline)
Well, I don’t think… I don’t particularly think anybody’s life has any particular importance besides whatever-you know- whatever we arbitrarily give it. Which is fine. I mean we might as well… I think I’m as important as anybody else…
Terry (Mark Ruffalo) gives this speech to Father Ron (Kenneth Lonergan) late in You Can Count On Me. His sister Sammy (Laura Linney) has just asked Father Ron to intervene and set him on the path to righteousness and he is a bit flustered at this surprise attack. Throughout Terry’s conversation with Father Ron he is grasping for words…still processing Sammy’s betrayal…when he unknowingly verbalizes the central conflict between his sister and him. Her life needs strict parameters and he runs away whenever things get too defined in his life.
After losing their parents at an early age Sammy and Terry have led very different lives. Sammy has raised a boy named Rudy Jr. who is now eight (Rory Culkin) in her childhood home in the tiny town of Scotsville, NY. Rudy Sr. is not a part of their lives and familiarity makes Sammy feel secure. She knows most of the people in her small town and has worked a job as a bank loan officer most of her adult life. There are allusions to her having a wild past but things are extremely stable for her now. The arrival of her brother and an uptight new bank manager at work (Matthew Broderick) converge to upend her placid existence.
Since leaving home (probably as soon as he turned eighteen) Terry has lived all over the country. Specific mention is given to Florida, Alaska, and Massachusetts at different times throughout the movie and at least one brief prison sentence was served during that time. He was eight when his parents died, Sammy was eleven. The security that Scotsville brings to Sammy revolts him. Terry swings into town to get money from Sammy for his girlfriend Sheila (Gaby Hoffman) and when he gets some bad news while staying with Sammy and Rudy Jr. he decides that a more long-term stay would be in his best interest. In the meantime, he becomes a father figure of sorts to Rudy Jr. and we get to see the uptight Sammy begin to make some questionable decisions. Rory Culkin gives an all-time great child performance as Rudy Jr. and is written as a quiet, thoughtful kid who represents the love and resentment Sammy and Terry have for each other.
On the eve of it’s 15th anniversary, it is hard to think of the term “modern classic” and not immediately think of You Can Count On Me. Upon it’s release in 2001 Linney and Ruffalo had a good amount of stage and screen work behind them, but their characterizations here were career-defining, with Linney earning a Best Actress nomination. The writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (who had previously written the play This Is Our Youth starring Ruffalo) got a Best Original Screenplay nomination as well. Executive Producer Martin Scorsese used his clout to help protect Lonergan from studio interference while filming.
This should be considered a must-see for any fan of intimate character studies and realistic, nuanced dialogue.