Before it evolved into an Academy Award nominated feature length film, Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me began as a one-act play, set in a restaurant where mature bank employee Sammy Prescott meets up with her aimless, rebellious brother Terry for lunch, looking forward to seeing him for the first time in ages. This lunch that begins politely and then gets progressively more dramatic as secrets come tumbling out fascinated the award winning playwright Kenneth Lonergan (This Is Our Youth) to such an extent that, feeling an affinity for his two lead characters, he decided to expand that one-act into a roughly two hour screenplay by giving the brother and sister more plot. Making his debut as a feature director in a work produced by Martin Scorsese, Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me launched not only himself as a major talent but also reintroduced the world to Laura Linney whose small but memorable roles in The Truman Show and Primal Fear had always made her an actress on the brink of stardom. Laura Linney earned an Academy Award nomination for her compelling, fierce, funny, and emotionally gripping portrayal of Sammy Prescott, a woman who, after losing her parents when she was a child, became an adult nearly overnight as she tries her best to hold things together for her eight year old son Rudy (Rory Culkin) and returning wayward brother.
Although it’s Linney who most commands our attention from the get-go, her performance and indeed the entire film is elevated by then-newcomer Mark Ruffalo, whose heartbreaking turn as Terry Prescott managed to strike home to several viewers and as a few attendees of my most recent showing of the film in my discussion series noted, is subtle and unforgettable in the film’s most challenging role.
Once the admittedly melancholy film reaches the half hour mark, the tone shifts from "family reunion" indie and it becomes a stirring psychological portrait of how two members of the same family remain stuck in that devastatingly defining moment in time when they lost their parents and thereby grew into two equally confused adults. With twinges of bittersweet humor, this surprising independent film earns some truly genuine laughs from the interplay between not only Linney and Ruffalo as well as the touching scenes between Ruffalo and Culkin but also in the form of Lonergan friend Matthew Broderick who shows up as Sammy’s new uptight and controlling boss Brian.
Linney, who this year is also nominated for an Oscar for her work in The Savages, seems to have a recurring interest in films about adults who are struggling to grow up, noted that she was drawn to the film because she’d never had a sibling and wanted to explore that relationship. It proved to be one of the wisest decisions the actress made in securing her not only nominations for her first major starring role but also in endearing her to audiences worldwide.
After crafting this deceptively simple, beautifully humanistic film, You Can Count On Me’s writer/director Kenneth Lonergan who costars in the film as Father Ron, waited eight years to release his follow-up film which will also star Ruffalo and Broderick alongside Academy Award winner Anna Paquin and should be out sometime in 2008.
Note: the haunting unaccompanied classical cello piece that plays throughout the film is Bach’s 1st Cello Suite.