Sammy (Laura Linney) shuttles between clerical work at the local bank and her tidy childhood home in upstate New York, where she now raises her own son. Hers seems a perfectly placid life, fraught with minor troubles and heartaches-the negligent ex-husband, the insufferable new mid-level manager at work (Matthew Broderick).
And then her estranged brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) returns home.
What ensues is a drama best described as humane, as the siblings struggle to regroup amid utterly ordinary conflicts.
After a year of choppy chariot warfare, Kevin Bacon's invisible penis, a grotesquely rendered Whoville and dudes searching for their car, a movie like this amounts to cinematic aspirin. You Can Count On Me is a modest film of small scope, concerning the everyday travails of everyday people. But, like Ordinary People and the somewhat grander The Sweet Hereafter, it observes them with clarity and honesty: When Terry totes young Rudy to a pool hall, Sammy is displeased. When she initiates a liaison with the prig at the bank, she unwittingly orchestrates a minor personal triumph. When Terry confronts Rudy's father, the obvious unfolds in a way that compels even as it rings true. In fact, You Can Count On Me is so ingenuous, so attuned to the rhythms of human behavior, that I initially mistrusted it: I knew if I waited long enough Sammy would peel off her mask and reveal that she is actually Tom Cruise on a motorcycle. And when Terry and Rudy left the barroom, I was sure the kid would ask his uncle to hit him as hard as he could.
Kenneth Lonergan, who directed and wrote the script, is a playwright, and his origins as a dramatist inform the film's structure and pacing-intimate, unhurried, careful. He limns his characters with the deft, incisive strokes of one who will not and cannot punctuate his drama with nitro explosions and acknowledges elements of religion and sexuality without resorting to stigmata and leather. Moment after moment after moment registers as sincere: The scene in which a distraught Terry succumbs to tears in his bedroom is as aching and luminous a specimen of truth as Kate Hudson's orchard heartbreak in Almost Famous-an instance of beautifully unforced, empathic observation. We recognize the sincerity of such moments not because we've witnessed them on screen before, but because we've experienced them outside the theater.
The performances are quietly thrilling in their restraint; Lonergan has directed his actors to embody their roles, to eschew the thespianic flourishes that would sink a story of this weight, and Linney, Ruffalo and Broderick have listened. Ruffalo so successfully evinces Terry's shaggy charm and obstinate temperament that he frustrates us as much as he must frustrate his sister; and Broderick, in the Greg Kinnear role, demonstrates once more that he fares far better in smaller films (Election) than in big-budget spectacle (Godzilla).
The revelation, though, is Linney, whose cool beauty lacquered unsympathetic to downright sinister turns in Primal Fear, The Truman Show and The House of Mirth, currently in theaters. Her Sammy is effortlessly appealing and plausible. We like her, we recognize her, we want for her what she wants for herself. And when the film ends, we find ourselves legitimately wondering what will happen next, and legitimately hoping we can check in on her again.
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