First-time director and third-time screenwriter Ken Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me" (IMDb listing) is that rare film that comes along and reminds its audience of the beauty and drama inherent in the lives of everyday folks.
The film is set in the fictional upstate-New-York town of Scottsville, a hamlet that might as well go by the name of Anytown, U.S.A.
Scottsville is the kind of town where everybody knows everybody, even if some of those everybodies have been away for awhile. It's here where we meet Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney), a single mom whose parents died in a car wreck when she was just a kid.
As the film opens, Sammy has just received news that her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo, in what will likely become a career-defining role) is coming for a visit, and she goes out excitedly preparing for his visit as if Terry were the love of her life.
And he is, in a sense. From the now-absent father of her son to her on-and-off, would-be fiancee and her married boss, with whom she's having an affair, the men in Sammy's life have never quite delivered. The bond she shares with her scruffy drifter brother seems to be the only long-term, meaningful relationship she's had with any man.
Never mind that Terry is just showing up because he needs some money to bail himself out of a fix. He feels his sister owes it to him because she lives for free in the house they both own. She gives him the dough, but her outrage at his behavior coupled with other circumstances cause him to stay for more than the planned day.
During his visit, Terry becomes an ironic role model for Sammy's fatherless son Rudy (Rory Culkin), while teaching Sammy that there's more to being grown up than holding a steady job and conforming to a rigid routine and a veneer of normalcy. Meanwhile, Sammy struggles to get her brother to show a little accountability for himself.
Matthew Broderick plays Sammy's unlikely love interest and supervisor, Brian. His passive-aggressive, Post-It-Note management style and goofy admiration of rules and paperwork serve as an excellent parallel to the emotionally restricted, carefully structured life Sammy does not realize she forces upon Rudy.
Culkin is fantastic as Rudy, a quiet kid with a big imagination who, before Terry comes along, spends his days being shuttled from school to the babysitter's. In the evenings he has dinner with his mom and creatively invents stories about Rudy Sr., the father he's never met. Rather than tell her son that his father is a low-life, Sammy allows Rudy the indulgence of his fantasies, which ultimately leads to the film's central drama.
The humdrum lives of Lonergan's wholly believable, unglamorous characters serve as magnificent jumping-off points for the dead-on honesty and the unspoken assertion that while everyone's life is cliche to some extent, it's how you subvert those cliches that defines your worth.
And few characters in recent movies pull this off quite so well as Lonergan's.
"It's a dull, narrow town," Terry says during a long rant against Scottsville. "They have no idea what's going on, and if you try to tell them, they'll kill you."
Rudy, who's probably never been outside of Scottsville, sits and listens to Terry's all-too-familiar diatribe before responding, "What are you talking about?"
What's refreshing about Rudy is that he's an incredibly real child, more like the kid on the school bus than the one in the latest Disney flick. He's curious about the world around him, yet more clueless than the film's adults, who also seem to be learning as they go.
It's the shared pain and joy of Lonergan's characters' learning that likely led to "You Can Count on Me" sharing the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize. Linney, Broderick and Ruffalo are fantastic in their roles of ordinary people and it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see at least one of them garner an Academy Award nomination. Culkin, last seen in "Richie Rich," is effectively a newcomer, and does a great job at looking confused and upset at appropriate moments and at capturing the naive, honest charm of a small-town, 8-year-old kid.
As for Lonergan's end, the script is first-rate, but the talents of a seasoned director are lacking in a couple of spots. While he generally does the smart thing and plays to his strong actors, freshman mistakes like allowing the boom microphone to intrude upon a couple of scenes mar the film, if only slightly.
But these minor missteps matter little when held up alongside the film's exquisite location shooting, be it in a restaurant, hotel, home or in upstate New York's beautiful green countryside and run-down shanty towns. And the director even has a somewhat substantial acting role as the priest at Sammy's church.
By the film's end, it's pretty difficult not to have been moved by at least one of its performances. Its characters, with their normal lives and easy-to-relate-to problems, make the film one of the year's best, a sort of small town "American Beauty" that could happen to just about anyone.
Filmfodder Grade: A
Review courtesy Flak Magazine. This review previously appeared in The Oakland Tribune.