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In an excerpt from his book, 100 American Independent Films, Jason Wood looks back on Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial debut You Can Count On Me. The film is inextricably linked to Lonergan’s latest, Manchester By The Sea, in its narrative device of an adult being forced to assume responsibility for another, younger family member.
Enjoying the double-whammy of Best Picture and Best Screenplay awards at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, You Can Count on Me marked playwright turned screenwriter Lonergan’s perceptive and engaging directorial debut.
Set in Scottsville, upstate New York, the film maps the fallout of a bereavement, beginning with a pre-credit sequence in which two sibling children lose their parents in an accident. The children grow up to be Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo), two people who are, literally, poles apart. The respected, God fearing single mother of a young son, Sammy’s neatly allotted life runs like clockwork until a priggish new boss (Matthew Broderick) arrives at her bank and makes her life hell. Close behind is the returning brother Terry, who after spending time in prison has drifted from one dead end situation to the next in the hope of finding himself. Ostensibly returning to borrow money, Terry is persuaded to stay on in the environment he finds so suffocating after nurturing an initially fractious rapport with Sammy’s son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Unfortunately, Terry’s presence serves as a destructive catalyst.
Stephen Kazmierski’s autumnal photography manages to capture both the visual beauty and the boredom of the region, condensing the minutiae of small town life to a suffocating conformity and obsession with neatness and order. Linney, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her impressive performance, and Ruffalo are utterly convincing as the contrasting but equally scarred siblings. Broderick, a friend of the director from high school offers effective support. Continuing the ongoing tradition of independent directors acting in their own films (most frequently an economic consideration), Lonergan appears as the faintly embarrassed local priest who seems ill equipped to provide ecclesiastical assistance.
Directed with economy and a flab-free precision fortified by Anne McCabe’s judicious editing, perhaps the main virtue of You Can Count on Me is Lonergan’s astute, intelligent and gently humorous script that treats its characters with respect whilst tenderly revealing the fragile fabric of their individual credos and moralities. Terry rails against the conformity of Scottsville and a settled family life but finally appears reluctant to leave, Sammy preaches the virtues of Christianity and the constraints of small town existence but wilfully jeopardises her place in the community by screwing her boss. Moreover, the film bristles with an understated melancholy and ennui and a highly developed sense of ambiguity that raises it above standard familial tension small town fare.
Similarly, Lonergan assiduously avoids mawkishness and a pat conclusion in favour of something more redolent of the damaged lives in which the film deals. ‘Everything is going to be all right. Comparatively,’ proffers Terry as he prepares to board the bus that will once again take him out of Sammy and Rudy’s lives.
Manchester By The Sea is released on Friday 13 January. To find out more and book tickets head here.
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