You can count on me is an independent film written and directed by Ken Lonergan, who also scripted Analyze this. This is his first outing as a director, and he has made an absolutely beautiful movie. It shared the Grand Jury Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, and also won the Screenwriting Award there. Many critics, Roger Ebert among them, call it one of the year's best.

The intelligent and subtle script makes you really care about the complex characters it presents, and the acting throughout is phenomenal. The story centers around the relationship of an adult brother and sister who were orphaned at a young age. The sister, Sammy (Laura Linney), still lives in their family's old house in a sleepy little town in the Catskills. Her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) is an unpredictable drifter. He's returned to visit Sammy after a long absence; it starts out as just a quick stop to ask for money, but turns into something more.

Sammy is a single mom. Rory Culkin, one of Macaulay's younger brothers, plays her 8-year old son Rudy. (This is his first major role, and he's terrific.) Rudy doesn't know much about his Dad, and is starting to imagine all kinds of wonderful things about him. Terry isn't the best influence, but gives him needed male attention, and the two form a strong bond.

Sammy's new boss at the bank (Matthew Broderick) makes up all kinds of silly rules and is a terrible manager. She has an affair with him because she feels sorry for him. At the same time, an old boyfriend she hasn't been seeing for a year decides to propose.

Ruffalo's performance here appears effortless; a very genuine, confused, and somehow admirable person emerges from his ne'er-do-well. Laura Linney's very conflicted Sammy is imperfect, but trying her best. Her performance is powerful and fresh. In one scene she drives home from a sexual encounter with her married boss, alternating shrieking and giggling in disbelief with biting her knuckles in doubtful worry.

The film is very funny and very real simultaneously. It asks many difficult questions about the unconditional love required within a family. What makes one's life meaningful? Is there a God? How do we balance home life and work? What makes a good parent? Do we have to grow up? There is no pat ending. You don't know where the characters are off to next, or exactly what's passed between them, but you want to know.

When Oscar nominations are announced for this year, I hope Linney, Ruffalo, and Lonergan's names all make the list. Go see this great little movie!

Addenda 2/26/01: Linney was nominated for Best Actress and Lonergan got a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Addenda 4/7/01: Neither was a winner. Too bad!

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