Kenneth Lonergan, writer/director of the remarkable "You Can Count on Me," knows that words can almost mean what we want them to, but more often they fall short. He sees how we fumble during even small gestures of emotion. He understands how fearfully we swerve from each other. What's stunning about this film, though, is how perfectly and quietly Lonergan conveys the gray undertones of people's separateness through a low-key story of two siblings with a strong bond of love despite very different outlooks on the world.
"You Can Count on Me" focuses on single-mom Sammy (Laura Linney) and her meandering brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo). The movie's brief prologue shows how as young children they lost their parents in a car accident. This tragedy has defined each of them differently: Sammy tries hard to maintain order and stability in her life as a small-town bank officer, while Terry, without a point but likewise without malice, drifts from place to place.
A need for money sends Terry on a visit to Sammy in their upstate New York hometown, where, for lack of anything better to do, he stays, offhandedly becoming a caretaker to Rudy (Rory Culkin), Sammy's 8-year-old son. In some ways Terry is actually pretty good at this job, giving the tentative kid a much-needed boost of confidence; for example, Terry shows him how to hammer a nail just once, then retreats to let Rudy figure it out for himself. Knowing next to nothing about his father, Rudy becomes fascinated -- after all, Terry swears and bristles and gets Rudy to keep secrets from his mom -- but he's also smart enough to see through Terry's aimless-rebel show. After Terry complains about the narrow-minded, five-and-dime town they're in, Rudy asks, "What are you talking about?" "I have no idea," responds Terry.
Sammy and Terry alternately connect and fight over the care of the boy -- in one scene Sammy screams that Rudy will learn that the world is a shitty place soon enough, without any help from Terry. The movie's crux, however, comes in the sweet, sometimes heartbreaking ways that the brother and sister try to express their love. Frustrated at Terry's rootlessness, Sammy prods him to grasp onto something solid in life. "How would you ever know if you found the right thing?" she wonders. She thinks he'd be happier if he had more direction, but it's also clear it would relieve her of worrying about him. The burden of disappointing his sister pains Terry, but he won't lie about himself.
Linney and Ruffalo deliver wonderful performances. They're lucky to have Lonergan's dialogue, which requires only the decibels of ordinary conversation to reveal sharply felt emotion, unlike, say, the admirable yet unforgivably overwrought pitch of Paul Thomas Anderson's operatic "Magnolia." Lonergan explores how we're constrained by what we think we SHOULD say; how care can misfire and end up as hurt; how our actions are sometimes inscrutable, even to ourselves. "Do you even know what you're doing here?" a minor but pivotal character asks Terry. The question sounds mundane, yet in this context it reverberates.
The only drawback comes in Lonergan's direction, which has its awkward moments. The cast includes Matthew Broderick playing Sammy's nitpicky bank manager (a type of what he did so well in "Election"), whose presence allows Sammy to feel the fun of a pointless adventure. Lonergan himself shows up in a funny turn as a thoughtful priest who'd rather discuss the motivations behind sin than invoke the fires of hell -- a response that an exasperated Sammy calls "psychological bullshit."
At one point Terry reassures Sammy by saying, "It's going to be all right. Comparatively." That "comparatively" carries so much: Terry's resignation, Sammy's acceptance of her bewilderment, and Lonergan's ability to paint relationships that are streaked with sadness even as they hold the promise of comfort.