From Small Things, Big Things Come
A "Little" Film That Blows the Blockbusters Away
A decade or so ago, while promoting the bloated holiday-season blockbuster Hook, Steven Spielberg gave an interview to some glossy movie rag in which he defended his big-budget oeuvre, explaining his creative choice to overwhelm viewers through spectacle rather than try to engage them with subtler, less-costly personality-driven films. The future DreamWorks honcho sniffed something along the lines of, "I don't make little movies," the implication being that such films would be a waste of his valuable time because they wouldn't be validated by several million ticket-buyers.
Sure, Spielberg's approach has since paid some artistic dividends (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan), and maybe he just got a little carried away in that interview, seeing as he was trying to sell his latest spectacle and all. But the big-is-better mentality still rules Hollywood, and that's bad news for those filmgoers who don't consider small-scale, detail-oriented, mature cinematic fare a waste of their time.
Director Kenneth Lonergan's debut feature, You Can Count on Me, is the kind of "little" film Spielberg disdained. It's a throwback to the kind of low-key, character-driven drama that had a brief early-'70s renaissance before FX-riddled blockbusters such as Spielberg's Jaws altered the Hollywood landscape. Count on Me is a sleepy, unassuming little gem that challenges viewers' capacity for emotional awareness, taking a kitchen-sink premise that would probably become sappy TV-movie pap in less capable hands. Lonergan, a screenwriter who penned the Robert De Niro comedy Analyze This, is also a playwright who knows how to coax improvisation out of actors, and Count on Me is buoyed by great, career-making performances.
Laura Linney (The Truman Show) stars as Sammy Prescott, a single mother who works in a bank and lives in her childhood home in a small town in upstate New York. She and her younger brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo), were orphaned as children when their parents died in a car accident. Now Terry, who's evolved into a wayward air-conditioned gypsy, plans on drifting back into town to avail himself of his sister's hospitality and, hopefully, squeeze some money out of her to buy his suicidal, possibly pregnant girlfriend (Gaby Hoffmann) out of trouble.
Sammy is, on the surface, the polar opposite of her brother--an attentive parent who's settled, warm, straightforward, and responsible. Under the circumstances, she seems to have it all together, and while she's disappointed by the motivations for her brother's visit, she lets it slide because she actually thrilled to have him around for once. Besides, his stay is conveniently timed: Sammy's new, uptight prick of a boss (Matthew Broderick) has nixed the daily coffee break she uses to transport her 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), to the sitter's, and Terry steps in to close the caregiving gap.
Despite Terry's reputation as a dope-smoking fuck-up, he turns out to be a sometimes valuable father figure. One of Count on Me's most attractive attributes is Terry and Rudy's relationship, in which the uncle makes a point of not talking down to his charge. Terry gives his nephew a kind of crash course on risk-taking by subverting the overly scheduled life Rudy has led up until this point, allowing the kid to be, for once, a kid. (Early in the movie, the boy complains that "there's not enough structure" in a homework assignment he'd been given.) Terry takes him to a construction site to hammer some nails, and one night they sneak out and play pool at a local bar, with Terry swearing his nephew to secrecy. Because their relationship is so conspiratorial and Terry habitually puts the kid in risky situations, his approach toward child-rearing (he explains at one point that he wants his nephew to face things "like a little man") blows up in his face and nearly destroys his relationship with his sister.
Meanwhile, Sammy is trying to sort out complications in her own life, juggling a marriage proposal from a stable but dull suitor and an affair she falls into with her boss, a guy so tightly wound that he insists that the bank's computer screens be toned down to neutral colors. (Broderick played a similarly unflattering character in last year's Election, and it's nice to see that Generation X's former Mr. Congeniality can pull off this kind of role so well.) In reality, Linney's Sammy is in fact not quite as stable as she seems--her veneer of self-control hides her tendency to make not-so-fabulous choices.
Much of the film's exposition is gleaned through director Lonergan's very deliberate method of filmmaking: He has a way of interrupting scenes before they play themselves out, cutting things short or leaving out the reaction shot that you would normally expect to see. Like negative space in a painting, this technique imbues the remaining text of the film with purpose--you get the idea that when you're watching a particularly explosive exchange between characters, it's not just a random bit of melodrama thrown in to kill time. You're meant to see it.
That requires a rare commodity in American filmmaking these days--trust in your audience. And a lot of what You Can Count on Me is about is trust--not only between characters in the film, but the director's trust in his actors to not betray the roles they play, and the filmmakers' faith that viewers can be thoughtfully engaged by material that's intimate and rendered in fine rather than broad strokes. Even the film's sappy title refers to an expression generally used to intimate trust, the kind of expression that these characters--or most people, as a matter of fact--would never have the nerve to say out loud. You Can Count on Me is a quiet, stirring picture about how your world and relationships evolve when you've had to fend for yourself for most of your life, but it reaffirms that individuals are most valuable when they're obligated to each other.