The world of film is full of trite attempts to understand how family works. If you think about (and I mean really think about it) there are dozens upon dozens of films that tackle family dysfunction. While You Can Count on Me numbers among them, to lump it with the rest of these types of films would be entirely unfair to the film and fans alike.
The film follows Sammy, a young single mother, and coming to terms with the only family she’s got left when her brother, Terry, blows in to town. The premise is simple, but with weighty performances from both Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, there’s more than enough material for folks to chew on. In fact, it is the film’s simplicity, it’s dedication to elements of realism in family life that make You Can Count on Me such a memorable addition to the numerous films about family.
But to credit the material alone would be absolutely unethical. Linney and Ruffalo’s chemistry as brother and sister bring the story to life in an incredible way. It’s got the intensity of Linney’s performance in The Savages but with a heart that was sorely lacking with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal as brother. Personally, that may be the most endearing aspect of You Can Count on Me, its roundedness. Sure, there’s conflict and tension between Sammy and Terry, but it doesn’t play out like most of these other movies. It doesn’t save up for one big money shot of “family love” at the end to give the audience a sense of closure. Instead, there are brief moments throughout the film that suggest an unspoken affection and an unbreakable bond between the leads.
While Laura Linney is her usual brilliant self in this film, Mark Ruffalo is a particularly impressive addition to the cast. Any traces of the leading man who piloted such disastrous films as Rumor Has It or the guilty pleasure 13 Going on 30 is completely absent from this movie. He holds his own as the black sheep of a two person family, which is no easy task. He does some of the standard acting go-to looks, like the “look down, I’m ashamed” or the “look away, I don’t want you to see me cry” thing, but all of these clichés are offset with some genuine emotional sincerity. Truth be told, maybe my appreciation of this role stems from my own role in the Kersten family big picture and my own relationship with my sister, but the fact remains, Ruffalo conveys his feelings well. Sure, my own familiarity with feelings of disappointment or inferiority help to color the movie more, but it was never a distraction. I stand by Mark Ruffalo’s performance in this film, not because of my own personal experience, but because he carries that weight as well as a warmth into his performance with Rudy, played by Rory Culkin.
The two seem so beautifully matched. Rudy Jr. needs a father figure since his ran out on him years ago and terry needs someone to tell him to finally grow up. While Rudy obviously doesn’t use those exact words, the interaction between the two says it all. What makes the relationship so compelling isn’t where the two characters end up, but where they started. Terry’s wild days have left him an emotionally stunted man-child. Rudy is wise beyond his years, but at the expense of his childhood. In a way, the two switch places, but in an entirely healthy type of way. The way the two feed off of one another and grow from their experiences is rich enough for a movie of its own, but adds something beautiful and simple to the finished film.
You Can Count on Me is an exercise in character development. There are a few technical issues, such as music and editing, that stop the film just short of perfection, but in the end, the characters won me over. Laura Linney’s role as the well-meaning sister who doesn’t know what to do with her reckless brother could have bordered on cliché. Instead, it is richly nuanced and beautifully acted. Ruffalo brings a caliber of acting to his role that should have easily nabbed him an Oscar and the rest of the cast manages to bring their own charm to the richly layered world that You Can Count on Me asks us to inhabit for its running time. In the end, it is the fine performances from young and old alike that help You Can Count on Me succeed as a timeless tale of the ugliness and the beauty of family life.