One of the unexpected melancholies of watching Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial debut, You Can Count on Me, is how much it acts as a marker in the visual depiction of suburbia. Released in 2000 after a decade of relative peace for the United States, the near-religious fervor small towns have for the American flag was tempered by economic stability and a future replete with growth. The events of September 11th put a flag on virtually every lawn and garage, adding a cultish quality to a place already devoted to sameness. Over the span of two decades, those flags seemed draped over American dreams and possibilities due to war, inequality, epidemics of addiction and now a global pandemic.

The film begins in tragedy, a fact that might inform this somber reading of the text. Mr. and Mrs. Prescott (Michael Countryman and Amy Ryan) die in a car crash, making orphans of their children Sammy and Terry, played as adults by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Lonergan flashes forward to Sammy and her life as a single mother in Scottsville, the town in upstate New York she never left. She lives in the house she grew up in, works as the lending officer at a local bank and raises her son, Rudy Jr. (Rory Culkin). She’s juggling the chaos which includes booty calls with Bob (Jon Tenney), a handsome and boring man whose reticence hides the fact that he wants more from their relationship. Not passionately, just practically. It’s all manageable until the new manager, Brian (Matthew Broderick), starts at the bank and Terry returns home.

Sammy’s world completely brightens when Terry’s letter arrives informing her of his plans. The house gets cleaned and goodies are baked, but her heart breaks when Terry tells her he’s just there for the day and needs to borrow some money. Terry is the kind of guy that read The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, chose a personality based on those novels and stopped reading because books couldn’t get better than that. He’s a drifter that subsists as a handyman and dreams of returning to Alaska if he can clear up the mess he left with his last girlfriend. He’s lovable yet toxic, and the entire town gets to experience the reality show that is his and Sammy’s relationship from their first argument over a late breakfast at one of Scottsville’s nicer restaurants.

Events conspire against Terry and his day in town turns to weeks, forcing him to connect with his skeptical nephew. Initially, this budding relationship appears endearing, but Terry is not the type of man who will miss the chance to ruin something beautiful. He takes his nephew out when he’s supposed to be babysitting to help him hustle pool and then forces Rudy to confront his father, a man he has never seen before, out of a sense of righteousness. The latter scene is one of Ruffalo’s strongest in the film, allowing him to show his range from sweet talker to menace before exploding into violence. It is the moment that catapulted him into the career he has now.
As for Linney, her work garnered the film one of its two Oscar nominations (the other for Lonergan’s screenplay). Ultimately, this is Sammy’s story, and many an essay must have been written about how the character navigates maleness as it is embodied by Rudy, Terry, Bob, Brian and her priest, Ron, played by Lonergan. They offer a range from Rudy’s need to Ron’s soft form of patriarchy, but there’s some strong implications that Bob’s overall reliability will win out in the end.

One of the pleasures of this film is how much Lonergan refuses to reveal about Sammy and Terry from the moments after their parents’ funeral to the events of the film. There is no mention of a guardian but a real sense that they parented each other in one way or another. The unexplained is a hole we the audience will fill with our own life experience and twenty years supplies a great deal of gravitas. It isn’t always the case, but on occasion a work of fine art can force you to examine who you were when you first encountered it and who you are when you return. Some of those memories may not be your proudest or best but you know what it means to survive your choices in a profound way, and the film’s open ending will leave you wondering what 20 years looked like for Sammy and Terry. The answer is the same for the characters as for all of us. They had lives, likely of small consequence. That is all any of us are promised.

You Can Count on Me was one of the most acclaimed films of the year 2000 and time has done nothing to diminish it. If anything, the film has grown more philosophical and important as a bittersweet time capsule for a forgotten America.

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