You Can Count on Me
First screened and reviewed in December 2000 / Most recently screened in March 2003
Click Here for the Top 100 Films of the 00s
Director: Kenneth Lonergan. Cast: Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Rory Culkin, Matthew Broderick, Jon Tenney, Josh Lucas, Kim Parker, Kenneth Lonergan, Gaby Hoffmann. Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan.

Twitter Capsule: Despite unassuming look and premise, each scene is a precision-cut gem. Linney and Ruffalo deserve everything.

VOR:   Wholly dignifies the frequently hollow art of the talk-driven comedy-drama. Amazingly acute about sibling dynamics.

Photo © 2000 Paramount Classics/Hart Sharp Entertainment/
Cappa Production/Crush Entertainment/Shooting Gallery
When the Oscar nominations are announced on February 13, Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me stands a strong chance for nominations in several important categories: Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay. Better yet, it will richly deserve all of this recognition, but one prize it deserves perhaps more than any will surely elude it. The category is Best Film Editing, credited in this case to Anne McCabe, and I contend that the constant omission of movies like You Can Count on Me from the Editing category is part of why many moviegoers, even moviemakers, consistently undervalue or misunderstand the craft. As a result, they misunderstand moviemaking in general, and start carrying on about how Cast Away and Billy Elliot represent good cinema.

Tim Squyres, the editor of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as Ang Lee's other films, recently spoke at a screening of the film I attended and made an invaluable point. Though he is likely to be nominated for his work on Crouching Tiger—because the art of cutting a film is often mistaken for the frequency with which a film is cut, or the obviousness of those edits, or the running time of the final version—he freely admits that Crouching Tiger was the easiest assignment he ever had. There is no question what the audience wants to see or what Ang Lee wants to show when Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi are battling it out with swords and swift kicks. Lee films short takes, Squyres splices them together. By contrast, any conversation in Sense and Sensibility involves three or four or eight characters who all harbor different and misaligned sets of important and typically unspoken information, such that their reactions to identical events or unfolding dialogues are both wholly dissimilar and equally crucial. What or whom do you show, then? How many or how few people? How long do you hold each close-up or each long shot? Do you cut to the rhythms of the scene as outwardly experienced, which might be a perfectly placid tea party, or as inwardly felt, which might have poignant and irrevocable consequences, sometimes all of a sudden? How can you make a point in the smallest, most economical amount of time?

These are some of the most burning questions of a film editor's job, and here, in addition to superlative performances and screenwriting, is where You Can Count on Me proves itself to be the best domestic comedy-drama in ages, a genuine American beauty without all the flash of American Beauty. Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo—remember those names—star as Sammy and Terry Prescott, a sister and brother in their middle 30s who have not seen each other for many years. Terry, a drifter and genial discontent of Holden Caulfield proportions, alights back in their upstate New York hometown only so Sammy, the single mother of Rudy (Rory Culkin), can discover that he has been in jail, has impregnated a girlfriend, and needs some money. What you cannot glean from that précis is the immaculate tonal restraint, somewhere between gentle comedy and deeply hurt feelings, with which this information arrives. There is nothing remotely sensational or climactic about Terry's disclosures, at least not for Terry or for us; even Sammy, shocked as she is, reacts as one would to a real-life situation, not to a preprogrammed narrative crux in a screenplay. To expect climaxes from You Can Count on Me is to misperceive the kind of tale writer-director Lonergan has in store, which most American movies have forgotten how to relate.

From these opening reunion scenes, which end with Sammy allowing Terry to move back temporarily into her house, the two attempt to learn their places in each other's lives, while also figuring out their own problems and peccadilloes. In addition to Terry's setbacks, Sammy has just begun an affair with her new boss (Matthew Broderick), a married man whom she doesn't really like. She's also received a marriage proposal from Bob (Jon Tenney), a man she might well have accepted if he'd gotten around to asking her even a year earlier, but whose tardiness in understanding his own feelings have severely qualified her own. Meanwhile, school-age Rudy cannot fail to notice that Sammy and Terry have totally different priorities and approaches to raising a child. As his curiosities and wishes change, he learns to expect different things from his mother and his uncle, and increasingly seeks each of them out for particular needs at particular times.

Have I failed at all to make You Can Count on Me sound like the warm, hilarious, moving story it is? It is the sort of film that I so poignantly hope people will see that I wish there were a sure-fire way to motivate you. I could go on about the wonders worked by Linney, Ruffalo, and even the young Culkin, who is easily the least precious and therefore most winning of his brood. They disappear so completely into their gorgeously written parts that no one seems to be acting, just being. The cast is so confident with their roles that Lonergan, a playwright and screenwriter (Analyze This) making a very assured debut as a director, takes them everywhere with equally persuasive results: broad comedy, light romance, fisticuffs, apologies. Only Broderick's role smacks at all of contrivance and self-conscious "hilarity"; even so, relocate his harried bank manager to any other comedy this year, and in those contexts, he'd be a model of subtle delivery. The strength of feeling conjured by this film recalls last year's Tumbleweeds or this spring's Wonder Boys, but if I prefer the new film only slightly, it's because the sister-brother symbiosis at the center of You Can Count on Me is less proven and familiar as a dramatic context than the mother-daughter bond or the mentor-student relationship, and Lonergan's film evokes even richer moods, conflicts, and veins of bruised humor, all without one showcase star turn like those accorded Janet McTeer and Michael Douglas. It's a near-perfect film of its kind, with no short cuts, no cheap tricks.

Which brings us back to Anne McCabe and her marvelous editing. The reason You Can Count on Me encompasses so many pleasures is that McCabe, surely in close conjunction with Lonergan, cuts every scene at the precise moment its kernel of feeling has been conveyed, or at the very precipice from which it might descend into predictability. She is not afraid to hold on a medium shot of two people on a park bench if what they're both saying is important, and if how they're each silently reacting to the other is equally important; she is not afraid to cut a conversation before it has even begun, if the real point of the scene is the awkward silence that precedes the first words. You Can Count on Me is a movie without an ounce of fat, and without a moment missing, sour or sweet, that the audience ought to have seen but didn't. It is perfect cinematic nutrition, yet with all the pure pleasure of dessert. Go eat it up. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Laura Linney
Best Original Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Laura Linney
Best Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan

Other Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize (Drama; tie); Best Screenplay
Independent Spirit Awards: Best First Feature; Best Screenplay
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Linney); Best Screenplay
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Screenplay; New Generation Award (Ruffalo)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Linney); Best Screenplay
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best New Filmmaker
National Board of Review: Special Achievement in Filmmaking (Lonergan)

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