You Can Count on Me (VHS, 2002, Special Edition - Spanish Subtitled)

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You Can Count On This Film

Nov 26, 2000 (Updated Nov 26, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:brilliant Acting, superb script, intelligent, authentic, touching.

Cons:few and far between

This intelligent, poignant, character study is all nuance and talk. There's not a lot of plot, there's not any action to speak of. It's a slice of life, punched up just enough by a literate script to be tender, witty, smart and ultimately very touching. It's one of those films that sneaks up on you and will stay with you for a long, long time.

Perhaps the best performance your going to see this year is given by Laura Linney. If you know this actress at all, you probably first discovered her on the PBS/Cable series Tales of the City (she played the wife in The Truman Show too). She's simply superb here, and if there's any meaning left at the Oscars, she'll not only be a contender but walk off with a statue for her work. She neither over-plays or under-plays her role, but rather has enough skill, and charisma to own or share ownership of every frame she inhabits in this film. She covers a full range of complex emotions, and lets us peek at her character's internal workings with subtle looks, a movement of her lips or eyes, a slight change in her voice, and body language. It's as if this role was not only written for her, but is her.

Kenneth Lonergan is the writer/director of this brilliant new film. He co-wrote Analyze This, contributed to Rocky and Bullwinkle and has written some very well reviewed plays. This is the first film he has directed and it deservedly won the Best Picture and Best Screenplay Awards at
last January's Sundance film festival.

Lonergan writes dialogue that is a perfect balance between the way we really talk and film-speak. His words show us characters who want to share their inner-feelings but aren't quite sure how to do it. What they say isn't always the wittiest or cleverest of things to say, but what they say sometimes hides or stops short of saying what they really mean. The subtext of what is going on with his characters is what makes his writing sublime . I'm sure he did a lot of agonizing cutting some witty and snappy lines that didn't quite fit with his characters.

The film has it's indulgences to be sure. It's set up gives the film a simply stylistic flourish and immediate sadness. We see characters forced to talk about difficult and awkward things and they simply can't do it. At least at first.

Later when brother and sister are re-united they find it difficult to communicate with each other and find ways to accept what they have become in each other's eyes.

Few films deal with brother and sister relationships in a manner which captures any semblance of reality. This one does and keeps hitting bull's-eyes with it's observations. We know these characters. If these people aren't in our families they are in families we have known. But we are given a rare opportunity to understand and come to terms with them.

Lonergan doesn't find too many visual ways to tell us about his characters. He doesn't give us visual sub-text to any degree. It's forgivable however when you are able to write dialogue as well as he can, and capture with your cameras wonderful performances from a well chosen cast. Perhaps he'll find ways to more vividly tell stories visually in the future.

I think he's capable of it. He does an interesting job of starting the movie with a series of simple shots. The film begins with a pre-credit sequence which quickly shows us a middle age couple getting into an accident. Next a police officer is at the door of a beautiful house which is answered by a teenage babysitter. Next we see a brother and sister sitting in a church pew at a funeral. The children's parents have been killed.

We'll flash forward about 20 years.

Sammy (Laura Linney) is a divorced working mom of an overly sheltered 8 year old boy. She goes to church, she is a good concerned mom and she's been taking care of things in a very responsible manner for several years. Her son fantasizes about what his dad is like. Sammy is worried about that because he's never told her son that his dad actually lives close by and has never bothered to even try to visit his son.

Sammy works at the local bank as a loan officer. A new manager Brian (Mathew Broderick) is taking over the bank. He's an overly rigid nerdish fellow who's read a few too many books on managing but doesn't know the first thing about dealing with people. He doesn't like the idea Sammy leaves the bank for 20 minutes to meet her son at the bus-stop and take him to the babysitter. He doesn't want to compromise with Sammy about it, he just wants her to be a completely dedicated employee. He also doesn't like any displays of individualism and believes he must demand his workers follow a drab bankers corporate code. It sucks the vigor and passion out of nearly all of the employees. Sammy, however has seen managers come and go and she recognizes how scared Brian actually is. He's overwhelmed with his in-experience and lack of confidence.

Meanwhile, Sammy's drifting pot-head brother suddenly re-appears in her life. She has missed him terribly and has worried about him because for over six months she lost complete track of him. Well brother Terry is in town because he needs to borrow money from his sister to help pay for an abortion for his soon to be ex-girlfriend. When he learns she's tried to commit suicide, he sends her the borrowed money and decides to stay on for a while. He'll try to be a friend to his sister and a father figure for his nephew Rudy. As long as he's entertained and in some control
of the role he's decided to play, Terry is fairly trustworthy. But when something goes wrong or when he has to pay for the consequences of a bad decision he's ready to fold faster than a house of cards and get out of Dodge.

Dodge in this case being a small picture post-card upstate New York town called Scottsville. His parents are buried there and part of him detests the small sh*t-hole of a town which for the most part is peopled by church going, law abiding citizens.

Sammy has a friendship with Bob. Bob's a momma's boy in search of a momma and he's got a good heart. He's dull, but a good decent, dependable kind of dull. A lot like Sammy in many ways. Sammy and Bob however aren't in sync with each other. Their timing with each other is completely off and they can't quite relax with one another.

There's a marvelous scene in which the priest (played well by director Lonergan) talks to Terry. It's set up at first as one of the scene where the Priest is made almost to look like a straw dog character for the film-maker to make comments about organized religion all around. Then the scene turns 180 degree and Terry finally realizes the hypocrisy, and lack of meaning he accuses the church of having is not much different from the meaningless and hypocrisy of his own life. He expects to hear certain things from the priest and when he hears something different, he's forced to examine his own sense of values and morality. They aren't on very solid ground at all. He's missed the connection in life that tells him he's important in the scheme of things.

The scene is perfectly written and performed. At first it seems to be setting up a soapbox, but that quickly dissolves back into the near seamless ensemble of characters the film shows us.

A film like this gives me a new renewed hope there exists film-makers who are capable of telling character based slice of life stories. The sort of films one equates with the early 1970s. The sort of film when done right seem to become a part of you and you embrace them warmly, but when done poorly you reject as dull ‘so-what' films.

To some, perhaps a great deal of the movie audience, You Can Count On Me, might strike them as a ‘so-what' film. There's not a lot of story or plot to the film. It's not a film that entertains with goofy over-the top characters doing silly or dangerous things. It's a slice of life drama with some comedic elements. In the end there are lots of loose-ends and though some growth has occurred for the characters, they aren't suddenly cured of their problems.

It's not a depressing or bleak film, though there is a underlying degree of sadness and loneliness in the film. How we find and live with life's sadness, how we find the connections we think we need, how we make selfish decisions or go down paths that have consequences we aren't prepared to deal with, but which can make us better stronger people for doing so, is also part of this film.

There aren't many films which deal with the simple life moments this film deals with in such an honest, warm, caring and authentic manner. Often little life moments pop up in films in order to manipulate us or to serve some agenda the film-maker is passionate about sharing with us.

I didn't feel as if Lonergan was serving up a agenda or trying to convince anyone of a particular point of view in his film at all. He may have some passionate beliefs that parallel some of what happens in the film, but he never forces them on us through his characters or cures their ills and woes through some slight of hand by the end of the film.

He could have easily slanted the scene with Terry and the priest to be one that carries an anti-organized religion message. It wasn't his intent to do so however. He was looking to show us a character who discovers a sense of his own value in life. It's one of the most perfect scenes I've seen in a film in a long time.

If you take a leap of faith and decide to go see the film. Don't expect it to bowl you over with truth or wit or cleverness. The film works slowly and with nuances and quiet subtleness. You might find yourself a bit bored during the first half hour. You might get annoyed and frustrated with the character of Terry. Actor Mark Ruffalo doesn't make him particularly endearing. He's a lost soul, but one you might to walk away from as much as pity. You can't though, because he's in the film a lot. Don't worry, he'll grow on you. You'll see the goodness in the character's heart even if he isn't going to change all the much during the course of the film.

Yes, the film is demanding or your patience and of your attention. It assumes you have some intelligence. Far too few films trust the audience the way this one does. Far too few films avoid giving the audience easy answers, solutions or tidy endings the way this one does. It's a difficult thing to pull off and even if you are successful at doing a superb job of it, it isn't likely you'll connect with a huge audience for your trouble.

Well, maybe this time, this deserving film will find the large audience it deserves. There's nary a false note in the entire film. See it, talk about it, encourage other people to see it. Don't put off seeing it because it's a small intimate film that will play pretty well on your t.v. set as a video or dvd rental six months from now. . . See it right now. Give yourself over to this very talented new film-maker for a few hours as soon as you can. If you're attracted or curious about what I've written regarding this film, you're going to connect to it. Yes, You can count on that.

4 1/2 stars rounded up to 5!

Chris Jarmick, Author (The Glass Cocoon with Serena F. Holder Available end of December 2000)


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