Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's remarkably perceptive "You Can Count On Me" is a sensitive, intimate, enormously touching drama that explores the intricate bond between two adult siblings, orphaned as children when their parents were killed in a car accident. Laura Linney gives an astonishing performance as a single mother whose stable small-town life spirals out of control when her brother-drifter, splendidly played by Mark Ruffalo, suddenly reappears.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkably perceptive “You Can Count On Me” is a sensitive, intimate, enormously touching drama that explores the intricate bond between two adult siblings, orphaned as children when their parents were killed in a car accident. Laura Linney gives an astonishing performance, her most fully realized to date, as a single mother whose stable small-town life spirals out of control when her brother-drifter, splendidly played by Mark Ruffalo, suddenly reappears. Superbly mounted film was a co-winner of this year’s Sundance grand jury prize and recipient of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Strong critical support and aggressive marketing strategy should help this small-scale pic go beyond the specialized indie audience.

Not much in playwright Lonergan’s former credits, among them co-scripting the Mafia comedy hit “Analyze This,” serves as preparation for the nuanced narrative, infused with compassion and humor, and impressive helming of his new movie. Writer-helmer examines one of the least explored issues in American films: the complex relationship between a sister and a brother.Lonergan’s yarn boasts the structure of a classic narrative, in which a charismatic and irresponsible drifter appears out of nowhere, creating chaos and altering the seemingly quiet and balanced lives of all those he encounters. Ruffalo’s part brings to mind the outsiders played by Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and William Holden in ’50s and ’60s mellers, except — and it’s a big exception — that most of those films unfold as romantic dramas, with the outsider igniting the latent passions of frustrated women in dormant milieus.

Borrowing some of these familiar threads, Lonergan begins his tale with the unexpected arrival of Terry (Ruffalo) in Scottsville, a beautiful, out-of-the-way town in upstate New York. A brilliantly written scene set in a restaurant brings to the surface the tensions between siblings who have remained close despite diametrically opposed personalities and vastly different lifestyles.

Sammy’s (Linney) existence is conditioned by all the securities and limitations of small-town life, here defined by the chores of being a single mom and by the spiritual guidance provided by the church. Married and divorced at a young age, she’s an overprotective mother to her 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Sammy conceals from her son any info about his absentee father, but the curious, susceptible boy stubbornly harbors romantic notions about him. Her emotional involvement with Bob (Jon Tenney), a goodhearted but not terribly exciting man, only partially fulfills her needs as a woman.

In contrast, brother Terry (which was the Brando character’s name in “On the Waterfront”) leads a troubled nomadic existence. He’s depicted as an irresponsible, self-destructive man with a penchant for getting into fights and being arrested. Leaving a pregnant girlfriend behind, Terry comes home to borrow money.

Essence of drama is the complex yet intimate friendship that wild Terry strikes with his lonely nephew. Against Sammy’s instructions, Terry takes Rudy to the local bar to play pool, goes fishing with him and shares secrets with him. Quite spontaneously, he takes Rudy to his biological father, who lives nearby with another woman. Exchange of slurs leads to a physical fight with Rudy Sr., who refuses to acknowledge his son, resulting in yet another arrest.

The beauty of Lonergan’s multilayered script lies in its subtle depiction of how Terry’s presence inspires his sister to break out of her dull routines. Sammy throws herself into an adulterous affair with her stiff new bank manager, Brian (Matthew Broderick), whose wife is pregnant, uses foul language, smokes dope with Terry and confides in the priest (played by helmer) about her reckless escapades. In brief scenes that have strong cumulative power, director shows variations on traditional role-playing as well as role reversals, suggesting that the real child in the family is not Rudy but uncle Terry.

Despite efforts to do the right thing, characters are pushed by external forces beyond their control. As screw-up Terry gets more in touch with his inner feelings, Sammy, the model of order and stability, loses control. Refusing to take a moralistic approach, Lonergan allows all of his characters to stumble and then learn the consequences of their lapses in judgment.

The work and sex scenes between Sammy and her boss are schematic and don’t always ring true, and Broderick’s rigid interpretation (the film’s only weak performance) makes things worse. While some of pic’s secondary male roles are not as well developed as they could be, when the central triangle is center stage, which is most of the time, this deftly observed drama is utterly engaging, thanks to flawless turns by Linney (last seen in “The Truman Show”), Ruffalo and Culkin.

Superbly executed, pic benefits from Stephen Kazmierski’s crisp lensing, Anne McCabe’s spiked editing and Lesley Barber’s classical music interludes.

You Can Count on Me

Production

A Shooting Gallery release of a Shooting Gallery production. Produced by John Hart, Jeff Sharp, Larry Meistrich, Barbara De Fina. Executive producers, Martin Scorsese, Steve Carlis, Don Carter, Morton Swinsky. Directed, written by Kenneth Lonergan.

Crew

Camera (color), Stephen Kazmierski; editor, Anne McCabe; music, Lesley Barber; production designer, Michael Shaw; costume designer, Melissa Toth. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 28, 2000. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Sammy Prescott - Laura Linney Terry Prescott - Mark Ruffalo Rudy - Rory Culkin Brian - Matthew Broderick Bob - Jon Tenney Mabel - V. Smith-Cameron Priest - Kenneth Lonergan

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