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You Can Count On Me (2000)

July 11th, 2008 · 6 Comments

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Synopsis
In the town of “Scottsville,” the life of bank lending officer and single mom Samantha Prescott (Laura Linney) becomes exciting again when her wayward brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) sends word that he’s coming for a visit. Orphaned at a young age when their parents were killed, Sammy responded to the trauma by trying to lead a tidy life, while Terry has moved around, but still doesn’t have any idea where he’s going. He notifies Sammy that he needs money to help a young girl he’s involved with. When he receives news that the girl tried to kill herself, Terry decides to stay in town for a while.

Sammy’s 8-year-old son Rudy (Rory Culkin) loves his uncle because he treats the boy as an adult, sneaking him into a bar to shoot pool, and answering questions about his father – who Rudy has never met – with brutal honesty. Sammy feels her brother would benefit by going with her to church and talking things over with the minister (Kenneth Lonergan), but when she has a fling with her married boss (Matthew Broderick), Sammy doesn’t endear herself as much of a moral authority. When Terry takes Rudy to meet his father, Sammy’s patience with her brother reaches the end of its rope.

Production history

Kenneth Lonergan studied dramatic writing at NYU and later worked with the theater company Naked Angels. Tasked with writing a one-act play on the theme of faith, the playwright arrived on two siblings meeting for lunch; the brother is a screw-up, but his sister refuses to give up hope in him. Lonergan liked the characters and when he saw a play featuring a young boy, hit on the idea of making the sister a single mother. The brother’s relationship with the boy would have both a positive and negative impact, forcing the sister to choose between helping her brother, or protecting her son.

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Producer John Hart acquired the film rights to Lonergan’s first play – This Is Our Youth – after catching a performance in a small theater on 42nd Street. Hart and his partner Jeff Sharp hired Lonergan to adapt a screenplay, but the show became so successful that plans for a movie were held back. During the wait, Lonergan showed the producers his script You Can Count On Me. Hart and Sharp were impressed enough with the material to seek financing, with Lonergan – who had sold a spec screenplay for what became the comedy Analyze This! – making his directorial debut.

Hart pitched the story to Larry Meistrich of The Shooting Gallery and secured the backing of the New York based production company. Martin Scorsese and his producing partner Barbara De Fina of Cappa Films heard about the project next, and were also eager to lend support. Scorsese in particular had followed Lonergan’s work for years. “He has a basic element which a lot of people try to attain and never do – his understanding of the human being and his ability to convey that in writing. What I admire about Kenny is the irony and humor and ultimately the truth of what he expresses.”

With $1.5 million in financing, shooting commenced June 1999 around the town of Phoenicia in the Catskills Mountains of upstate New York. Lonergan wrapped the film in 28 days and had it ready to screen at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it split the Grand Jury Prize with Girlfight and won Lonergan the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Paramount Classics acquired distribution, and when You Can Count On Me was released in November 2000, critics were equally effusive with praise. Industry peers of Laura Linney and Kenneth Lonergan nominated them both for Academy Awards.

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On the DVD audio commentary, Lonergan attributed the uniqueness of the film to its characters. “I don’t think I could have made the movie at a major studio without pasteurizing certainly some of Terry’s personality, which is too bad because a lot of the people in the movie business who have seen the movie really like it just for the reasons they would have objected to before it got made. I think that’s a really evil trend – that there’s such a terror that the characters won’t be absolutely lovable from start to finish – that they all become extremely boring.”

Opinion

Even with a naturalistic look (Lonergan cites Coal Miner’s Daughter as one of his inspirations style wise) and a cast that would shame the first time efforts of most directors, You Can Count On Me remains a cut above the best independent films of the ‘00s because of its screenplay, which is about as perfect as you could hope to have in a movie. Lonergan doesn’t let one artificial moment slip into the film for the sake of entertainment value, but builds a story that manages to be both enjoyable to watch, and uncompromising in its depiction of relationships.

Instead of coming off as caricatures with lots of goofy quirks, the characters in You Can Count On Me are thinking, living adults who remain comically fallible in spite of their best intentions to do things right. The film is so unique because it develops a moral conscience without preaching to the audience, questioning whether Terry is doing more harm than good, and whether this is acceptable or not. The brother/sister chemistry between Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney is something special, as is the nuanced performance of Rory Culkin, who made his film debut here at the age of ten.

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Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “You Can Count On Me may be a small, independant film, but the emotions and relationships it reveals are anything but. This is a powerful film about the ties that bind family and how tragedy shapes the lives of those it leaves behind. It’s a well-acted film that deserves more attention and one that will leave you feeling glad you spent the time…as long as your family isn’t as crazy as this one. Otherwise, it might hit a little too close to home.”

“Only a person with no interest in or understanding of human beings could find this film slow. It’s as fucking true a film as you will ever see. Terry, the mildly self-destructive and aimless wanderer with firm convictions and Sammy, who depends on anchors, but does not accept confinement are two of cinema’s best characters this side of Robocop. They deal with the problems faced by thoughtful people in all walks of life and in all situations, mainly about how to live and finding a place in the world,” writes Erich Schulte at Ruthless Reviews.

Harold Gervais at DVD Verdict writes, “You Can Count On Me is one of those films that make me glad I do what I do. It is a gem of a movie that speaks with a voice that is consistent and truthful; exploring characters that are real and discovering emotions that almost anyone can relate to. In a sparkling directorial debut, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has fashioned a movie that simply does not exist in the high concept, big budget world of today’s Hollywood. It is a film of small joys and profound pains. It has humor, warmth, sex and love. It moves along at a pace that is both comfortable and immediate; never losing sight of the people within it or the world they exist in.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Bathtub scene · Brother/sister relationship · Mother/son relationship · Psychoanalysis · Small town

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel // Jul 11, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    A great little film. Unfortunately it lives on in memory in a somewhat negative light as I was mugged on the way home from the theater. On the bright side, I remember watching Mark Ruffalo and thinking “Who is this guy? He must be one to watch.” I think he still is.

    Regarding the film itself, well I guess I can only say I found it more touching than a more recent comedic version also starring Linney, last year’s The Savages.

    “bathtub scene”? Hmm…I don’t remember…

  • 2 Moviezzz // Jul 12, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Loved this film as well.

    Especially that scene on the bench, with the two of them talking. Ruffalo is excellent in this.

    It is one I’ve been meaning to watch again as I haven’t seen it since the theatre, yet I remember the film enough that, maybe I shouldn’t watch it again.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jul 12, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Daniel: I had the impression you were a guy who went to the downtown arthouse, but I hope nobody was hurt and you didn’t have much cash on you when you were mugged. As for the bathtub scene, it features Ruffalo when he first arrives at the house. He looks over at the matching towels and has a sort of “Where am I?” moment. Thanks for noticing my categories, I’m coming up with new ones all the time, so if you have any suggestions, let me know.

    Moviezzz: I saw You Can Count On Me in the theater as well and didn’t revisit it until a couple of weeks ago. It holds up very well. It’s probably the best directorial debut you could expect. The casting and strength of the performances is the first indication that Lonergan knew what he was doing, and for $1.5 million, he got some terrific production value in the town of Phoenicia. Thanks for commenting.

  • 4 Daniel // Jul 15, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    Ah yes, that scene does sound familiar now. I remember Ruffalo having to find his bearings. I think it’s a fine category, by the way. There are plenty of movies that have bathtub scenes!

    And thanks, I fortunately wasn’t hurt. I’m not the type to pick a fight if the odds are stacked against me. They got some cash from me and pushed me around a little bit, but that’s it. I suppose it happens to anyone if you’re a city dweller (this was in Boston, incidentally) for long enough.

  • 5 christian // Jul 16, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    This might be my favorite script of the decade so far, along with the performances. A terrible title for a great film.

    Where the hell is Margaret? My friend worked on the film three years ago…

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Jul 16, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    Christian: No argument about Kenneth Lonergan’s script. Simple story, very complicated characters, even the kid. It’s rare you see a kid as decent as Rudy in a mainstream movie. Instead of acting goofy or coming across younger than his age, you see him trying to figure adults out and his place in the world. Beautiful stuff.

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