You Can Count on Me (2000)

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

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Kenneth Lonergan’s first film, like Margaret and Manchester By the Sea, is about pushing back together a family that is pulling apart.  In each of his three films the family is splintered and barely holding on.  The biggest decisions his characters make are to stick around and work it out, though usually this doesn’t happen until the end, if at all.

Underlined by a score of classical music, the intimate, small-town story is made to seem much more tragic, like the transgressions of Samantha or Terry could have ripple effects that will affect all of humanity.  Their sins are our sins, and the degree to which they can find salvation reflects our ability to find a similar peace.

While there is never any heavy-handed imagery, no indications that these characters represent anything bigger than themselves, Lonergan’s film suggests a grandiosity to their struggles.  I don’t think it’s that he wishes to imply that their problems are that meaningful, but he does effectively push us into their world so that we feel what they feel.  Sometimes if you’re having a bad day, everything seems to reflect what you’re feeling, and Lonergan nails that sensation.

The story of Samantha (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) has no impact beyond their own lives, something they themselves acknowledge in a scene with a pastor, played by Lonergan himself.  Their struggles are more or less self-inflicted, and their misery is more or less indulgent.  Sure, it feels important to them, and it is important, but these are two characters who hardly help themselves out.  This is a story that could be portrayed in a fashions similar to Alexander Payne’s Sideways.  That 2004 film pokes fun at its central characters and their self-sabotaging ways.  It’s a movie that looks at those characters with self-awareness, empathizing with their struggles but mocking their self-importance.

If Payne’s film looks at its characters with a knowing smile, Lonergan’s film looks at its characters from deep within.  We’re not meant to analyze or judge their behavior.  In some ways their decisions, whether positive or negative, are out of their control.  It all emanates from something deep within that is strongly felt but hardly understood, and the film suggests it goes back to their childhood when their parents were killed in a car crash.

There is a sense that everything that happens is pre-ordained, no matter if it’s an ill-advised affair between Samantha and her boss or a fist-fight between Terry and Samantha’s ex-boyfriend, the father of her 8-year old son Rudy (Rory Culkin).

So we’re not meant to question their behavior as much as we’re supposed to identify those things within ourselves that hold us back.  In a way, this film is just about the damaging qualities that make us human.  It’s not a movie about a world that antagonizes our hero because that isn’t always realistic and not always relatable.  It’s about how we’re affected by our own past, memories and things that happen to us.  Then we become people whose behavior will reflect what’s happened to us and spread that on to the generation that follows.  Or something like that.

Samantha is a single mother in a small town called Scottsville.  She lives in the same home her and her brother grew up in, and when she hears that her brother, Terry, is coming to visit she becomes ecstatic.  That joy soon wears off when she realizes that the road-weary Terry just needs some money and was planning on splitting soon after.  After a brief fight, he agrees to stay a little longer and begins to bond with young Rudy.

Even as this happens, the adult siblings butt heads and struggle to put their life together. Samantha refrains from answering a marriage proposal and instead begins an affair with her new boss whom she has struggled to get along with.  Terry has nowhere to go, no money and no job prospects, so he just loiters around town even as he decries this place and can barely do the least of what’s asked of him.  He routinely forgets to pick up Rudy from school and will continually misbehave around him, culminating in a fist fight with the boy’s father.

The point is that both characters are kind of a mess, and they don’t know any better.  They want to turn their lives around, whatever that means, but their biggest obstacle is themselves, and even when a kid is in the picture they struggle to look beyond themselves.  Without considering where his pent up anger comes from, Terry acts on impulse and gets into a violent scuffle in front of Rudy, not thinking for a minute how this might affect the impressionable young boy.

After the fight and Terry’s arrest, Samantha has had enough and asks him to leave.  He will say one final, heartfelt goodbye to his nephew and his sister before he leaves, but their final conversation is as strained as the ones that come before.  She begs him not to go or to at least stay in contact while he’s gone, and Terry seems offended by the accusation that he wouldn’t already consider writing her.  Based on what we’ve already seen, Terry will soon disappear once more, so Samantha’s worries are valid.

Terry, maybe just to calm her down, insists he will return for Christmas, but Samantha doesn’t appear to believe him.  They say goodbye, go their separate ways, and it’s up to us to decide if anything at all has changed.  The film ends on a quiet note, a fade to black as Samantha drives in silence, much in the way of Manchester By the Sea.  We watch these characters go on a somewhat introspective journey, but it’s not clear how they will respond to anything they may have learned.

There is a lot of humor in You Can Count on Me, but for the most part it feels like a tragedy.  Samantha and Terry as adults have grown so far apart that her eagerness to greet him upon his return home feels like the Christmas Eve excitement of a kid too old to still believe in Santa.  They are just so far apart, and it seems like any attempts to find common ground won’t last.  They’re just drifting apart, on different tracks that have been established long ago.  The forces that pull them apart are invisible, but they’re stronger than the force holding them together.

And that force is Samantha on her own.  All Terry’s desires are self-serving.  His visit is driven by a need for money, and he stays out of guilt.  When Samantha finally reacts appropriately to his poor behavior, he blows it out of proportion and weaponizes his own guilt.  When you have nothing but yourself, the only card you can play is to leave.

Kenneth Lonergan has a tendency to really chop up his scenes, in an effective way.  When the film opens, we hear one line of dialogue between a husband and wife before they get into a fatal car crash.  Then a police officer shows up at the kids’ house, and we don’t hear what he’s about to say because we can already tell based just on his presence and expression.  The film often does this, cutting out what would normally be the most important line of dialogue and instead focusing on the expressions or reactions to that moment.  In another scene, Samantha’s sort of boyfriend proposes marriage, and we jump into the scene right after he has asked her.

In this way, most of the scenes ignore the instigating moment and focus on the fallout, much in the way the film is a series of unconscious impulses driven by the death of Samantha’s and Terry’s parents.  Lonergan is less interested in the plot points of our lives than in how we deal with them because the differences in how we deal with such things is what makes us different, right?

Kenneth Lonergan feels like a psychologist.  He focuses on they ways we get in our own way and the ways moments in our past burrow into our psyche and manifest in self-sabotaging behavior.  That behavior might not be as egregious as it if here, but the effect is still to hold us back.

So You Can Count on Me is a story about two siblings who are trying to push back against this natural pull away from each other, but it’s not entirely clear that they are successful.

Up Next: Lone Star (1996), Magnolia (1999), The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

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