You Can Count On Me has a TV-movie title, but about 20 minutes into the film, you realize the title isn't as a routine as it first seemed, and it certainly isn't intended ironically.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan made a movie about two siblings who can count on each other to react a certain way, good and bad. The film is straightforward and unpretentious, an outstanding little story so alarmingly simple that it reminds us not only of the power of a clear narrative, but of what we've lost at the movies: humanity.
No special effects here. Nothing hip. Characters talk and life happens; options are considered and bad choices are made, and people are sometimes forgiven. Small triumphs counter minor setbacks. And while it is still very much a movie, funny and entertaining to the end, it all feels like life itself, with people who act like real people and contradict themselves like real people. When it's all over, they probably haven't changed that much.
There are no violent standoffs and there are no long speeches. And though this movie may sound like a talky bore, you're dragged in by its very ordinariness, then captivated by a couple of superb performances by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo.
They play Sammy and Terry, respectively, brother and sister who, as teenagers, lost their parents. The scene when they're told that their father and mother were in a traffic accident is typical of the movie: a local police officer from their small upstate New York town knocks at the door. Sammy steps outside for a moment. The cop hesitates before delivering the bad news. Then Lonergan skips ahead 20 years.
We've seen that moment a million times before in a million movies, but again and again, Lonergan gives us the soap opera set-up, generates a level of comfort, only to quietly subvert it every time.
What's changed is that Sammy is now a lending officer at a local bank. She has an 8-year-old son, and she never left town. Coming to work, picking up her son, eating lunch at the same spot every day - we get accustomed to the rhythms of her day. That's when Terry shows up again. He's been drifting around.
They meet in a restaurant and Terry breaks bad news. For the first time the two break their facades, and Sammy, exasperated at not having the brother she wants, blurts out that she wishes he just sent an invoice for the money he wants instead of showing up, wasting her goodwill.
Scene after scene, Terry and Sammy repeatedly repair and inflame their problems. Terry attempts to become a role model to her son. Sammy has an affair with the new manager of her bank (a wonderful performance by Matthew Broderick). Sammy asks her priest to console Terry. Terry thinks that's a hoot - his sister, a wild child at heart, we learn, seeing herself as a good example.
The rest of the plot hinges on how comfortable they can try to be with eachother. Linney, who played Jim Carrey's wife in The Truman Show, is sunny and pleasant and, when stressed, profoundly bitter. Terry is smart and aimless.
As conventional as this may sound, there's nothing like this film out there right now. So ignore all the blurbs proclaiming “a triumph of the heart” and “Heartwarming.” Those are critic's words, and You Can Count On Me, which rises above banality, doesn't deserve their flatness. This is one of the most accessible, believable family dramas in ages, and one of the year's best movies. Don't miss it.