Cinema Signal:

. "You Can Count On Me"

In the family film category, you can count on this little film. Some of the things you can count on include an almost complete lack of violence, an honest portrayal of one kind of family in which a brother-sister relationship is the core of it, and no histrionics, explosions, digital effects or cross dressing freakiness.

Where it gets its 'R' rating is from a rather liberal use of choice expletives.

Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney, the name presumably from Samantha) is raising her 8 year old son Rudy (Rory Culkin) in the house she and her brother inherited from their parents. She works as the credit manager in the local bank of this upstate New York small town. Her brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo) has been leading the life of an itinerant wanderer but comes to pay a visit, as though it's "coming in out of the cold". Sammy is overjoyed to see him after a two year interval.

Terry, however, is not entirely "at home" in this house where he grew up and which he co-owns with his sister. Having been on the road most of his adult life, it's far too claustrophobic for his free spirit and, soon, we are in the midst of arguments, bickerings and misunderstandings between the two siblings. Despite that, Uncle Terry bonds with his nephew who so quickly responds to a male role model in his young life, a development that goes deeply into Mom and sister Sammy's heart. The uncle-nephew moments are some of the sweetest in the film for the very reason that they're so nicely unsentimentalized.

She, meanwhile, is dealing with the appointment of a new boss at the bank, who gives her a hard time about her taking off mid-day to pick up her son from his day care. Brian (Matthew Broderick) is determined to improve on the efficiencies of his banking staff and he isn't quite prepared for the sort of resistance he encounters from Sammy.

Sammy's love interest is that nice fella, Bob (Jon Tenney) who finally, after a year or so of dating and casually sleeping with, decides to propose marriage, virtually out of the blue. It's a small complication in Sammy's life, which she ultimately resolves as she does the fling she has with Brian, her boss. What she can't quite resolve, or control, is her brother who pretty much insists on doing things his own way, like getting himself into an altercation with her ex-husband, with Rudy her son looking on. She bails him out of jail for that one but pot smoking screw up brother Terry continues on to disagreements with the local priest (Ken Lonergan, director) and with various authority figures.

In short, Terry is a primary energy source of this gentle little film that depicts real people leading the kind of lives people live -- lives that don't get featured in magazines or movies very often. All the members of the small cast are exemplary in their unfiery but deeply felt situations. Rory Culkin is a standout for his understated and totally honest portrayal of a young, unrebellious boy starving for some male attention, respectful of his mother and brightly aware of more than a few adult realities.

Ruffalo is a discovery, capable of evoking considerable sympathy while depicting a character to whom screwing up his life is as inbred as his eye twitches. As for Linney, here, she likely won't even remind you of her wife character in "The Truman Show".

They are all tenderly directed by author Ken Lonergan ("Analyze This", "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle") in this very personal vignette of a relationship not often depicted as a central one to a film. Those knowledgeable in the workings of Hollywood might wonder how such a gentle film ever got a go in the high tension environs of Hollywood. Lonergan's success with "Analyze This" and the executive producing by Martin Scorsese helps explain how good, little films like this get made.

A big hit at Sundance, a festival that champions little, low budget films with resonant themes, it's a delightful entry for this year and well worth seeing. It's a compromise between how petty and not-so-petty arguments could undermine two sibling's ability to count on each other, and the love and ultimate understanding that guarantee it.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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