You Can Count on Me
It’s hard for me to talk about my favorite movies, maybe because the reasons behind the choices are difficult to explain. I am always afraid I’ll get the response, “Oh, I saw it. It was OK,” or even worse, this question: “Really?”
The short answer is I have a lot of favorite movies. It is easier for me to choose favorite directors than movies, maybe because their best ideas are better fleshed out through a career than one feature. One of those favorite directors is Ken Lonergan; recently I watched his first directing effort, You Can Count on Me, one of my (unembarassed to say) favorites.
The story of two grown orphans, one established with a child and a steady job, Sammy (Laura Linney), and the other a drifter with a long list of relationships and run-ins, Terry (Mark Ruffalo), Lonergan focuses on the fateful few weeks when Terry comes home to visit. There Terry gets to know Sammy’s eight year-old son Rudy (Rory Culkin), and tries to teach him a little bit about the unsweetened kind of life.
It’s life, the unsweetened kind, that Lonergan is a master at depicting. Ruffalo is perfect as the prodigal son and Linney is just as good as the disappointed daughter. She has always doted on her younger brother, but he has trouble reciprocating. The best scenes show these two polar opposites trying to understand each other. In one of my favorite scenes, Sammy takes Terry to a fancy restaurant for his homecoming. He tries to be polite but at a certain point gives up and gives in to his nihilism. He came here for money. They fight. He threatens to leave. And in the next scene she takes him to an ATM. I’m disappointed by Sammy’s decision, but couldn’t imagine her character acting any other way.
Terry’s relationship with his nephew Rudy is an equally difficult negotiation. He wants to be his friend, but he doesn’t know how. When he is supposed to babysit one night he gets bored and takes him to a bar. They win at pool. Mom finds out, and Terry can’t help but get mad at Rudy for telling. Never mind it was not Rudy who told.
Terry takes Rudy fishing to apologize, only to detour on the way home to his deadbeat dad. Terry badly wants to show Rudy the way life really is, but in the process he scars him for life. It doesn’t help he gets into a fight with Rudy Sr. Every decision each adult makes is as well-intentioned as it is ill-advised. In other words, it’s life.
If Frank Capra were alive today, he would be a fan of Ken Lonergan. There is a warmth to these characters but a bitterness too. There’s optimism to the script, but it’s weighted with disappointment. These are real families who really love each other but don’t know how to deal. They’re not going to cut and run. They can count on each other. It’s no fairytale, but perhaps that’s why I appreciate it so much more with each viewing.