Published Sep 01, 2000On a rainy, but otherwise ordinary evening, adolescent siblings Samantha and Terry Prescott find out that their parents have died in a car accident. This happens in a brief pre-credit sequence in Kenneth Lonergan's film, You Can Count on Me, and although this event isn't really discussed for the rest of the film, it looms in the background, informing every scene like an overcast sky. When we first encounter Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) as adults, it's clear how this trauma has affected them. As the older sibling, she shouldered the burden of her parent's death and cast off her teenage rebellious streak in favor of a controlled, passionless existence as a single mother. Terry, on the other hand, became an aimless drifter. He's a likable guy but his consistent irresponsibility places him just barely on the nice side of being a total prick. When Sammy gets a letter from Terry announcing his return to their hometown of Scottsville, New York for a visit, she gushes with joy that her brother is returning to the roost, and she cleans the house and gets herself gussied up in anticipation. Terry arrives, looking like he just rolled out of bed, and over dinner, sheepishly steers the conversation toward asking his sister for money to pay for his girlfriend's abortion. This awkward dinner scene is a note-perfect combination of embarrassment and quiet heartbreak. Despite everything, Sammy considers Terry to be the closest person in her life, and you can palpably feel her heart sinking when she realizes that this visit might be as brief and impersonal as a visit to the bank machine. You Can Count on Me is an astonishing film. It's a subtle-as-a-feather comedy and an affecting drama in which the laughter often morphs into wince-inducing empathy. As human beings, Sammy and Terry are both incomplete projects who, in surprising ways, eventually complete each other. When Terry starts to shake up Sammy's cloistered lifestyle (he surreptitiously takes her little son to the pool hall one night), she lays down the law, forcing him to understand that he has to look out for people other than himself. On her end of things, Sammy finally breaks out of a suffocating relationship with her mediocre "nice guy" boyfriend, and initiates a liberating, but ill-advised affair with her passive-aggressive boss (Matthew Broderick). In its own honest, understated manner, You Can Count on Me, raises the bar for American comedies. The ironic thing is that this is coming from the unlikeliest of sources. Kenneth Lonergan's previous screenplays were Analyze This and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but he's actually a playwright by trade and that's what shows through in this, his first film as a writer-director. It's the kind of startling debut that makes you wonder why we tolerate all the phonied-up Hollywood bunk that gets marketed down our throats year after year.