Keeping the Faith

Pilgrims' progress: Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo in <i>You Can Count on Me</i>

Pilgrims' progress: Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me

The shared assumption that American movies are tools of escapism naturally militates against the existence of films like You Can Count on Me, whose small-town characters drive sensible vehicles to dead-end jobs, struggle endlessly to improve their relationships, and--a small role for Matthew Broderick aside--are not played by stars. For these reasons, plus the fact that it's extremely well-written, You Can Count on Me stood apart from the pack at Sundance in January, as it does now, near the end of this already legendary Worst Year for American Movies in a Decade. Fundamentally old-fashioned in its values (as small towns often are), this modest drama of an orphaned brother and sister who are fully grown but still act like kids offers a return to the kind of filmmaking that favors nuance over flash, dialogue over camera placement, and realism over resolution. As cinema, it isn't much, but as a story--directed with insight and sensitivity by playwright Kenneth Lonergan--it's enough to set the Town Hall buzzing.

Suffering more or less calmly from arrested development, single-mom Sammy (Laura Linney) is still living in the upstate New York home where she and her younger brother Terry first learned of their parents' death in an auto accident 20 years earlier. A lending officer in a bank, Sammy has been privately subsidizing Terry (Mark Ruffalo), a scruffy drifter, in his perpetual wanderings from Florida to Alaska and back east again for another handout. Terry's latest visit, which includes an unexpected bond with Sammy's eight-year-old son (Rory Culkin) and a botched attempt to repair the plumbing, provides the humble basis for a movie that's more concerned with collecting character details than with advancing the plot per se. At first, it appears the siblings are exact opposites: Prim and proper Sammy dallies with men to relieve her boredom; unkempt Terry can't sit still but tries to care for his pregnant girlfriend by mailing her a cash-filled envelope from afar. Yet eventually it becomes clear that each has staked out a territory that allows some mix of security, responsibility, and rebellion--as in childhood.

Not that the film, to its credit, ever vocalizes this. Indeed, the closest it comes to the sort of self-help psychology that has become such a glib staple of studio dramas is the cameo appearance by writer-director Lonergan as Sammy's priest, who sheepishly confesses the Catholic Church's position on adultery: "Well," he stammers, "it's a sin." If this weary man of God functions as an inadequate parent figure for Sammy, she seems to pass along the favor through her casual fling with the uptight boss (Broderick) whom she openly pities, partly because his wife is six-months pregnant. Unlike in, say, Pay It Forward, the dysfunctional characters here can expect no magic "movement" to turn them all into martyrs or saints. You Can Count on Me, rather, is about the everyday struggle with imperfection as a state of grace.

And it's surprisingly funny. En route to a motel tryst with the boss from hell, Sammy flips on the car radio and hears Loretta Lynn wailing, "I'm the other woman"--an acknowledgment, of which Sammy herself is aware, that the script she has written for her life is in many ways a bald cliché. Befitting Lonergan's bid for ordinary realism, a fair amount of the movie takes place in the heroine's car as she drives to work, to her son's school, or to church. Although the film ultimately resists steering Sammy onto the path of righteousness, a measure of her progress can be found in a slow tracking shot from behind the windshield, as the same three-block stretch of town is suddenly made to seem like the whole wide world.