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When all else fails, you still have family

Sibling love, faith explored in 'You Can Count on Me'

In this story:

On their own

Faith, trust explored

(CNN) -- "You Can Count on Me" is one of those small slips of a film that can get lost in the avalanche of Oscar contenders hitting the nation's multiplexes this time of year.

This gem of a small, independent movie about the power of sibling love stars Laura Linney (Jim Carrey's wife in "The Truman Show," 1998) as Sammy Prescott. Sammy's brother Terry is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, whose credits include some small films and a few stage productions.

Both performances are gently nuanced and brimming with real emotion. The fact that these two actors are playing siblings while looking and sounding nothing alike is a tribute to their acting abilities and to this excellent script by first-time director Kenneth Lonergan. (Lonergan's screenplay credits include "Analyze This," the wildly successful 1999 comedy starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal.)

"You Can Count on Me" does have its comic moments, but it's mainly a soulful story about the conditions of unconditional love.

On their own

The movie begins in flashback as the parents of Sammy and Terry die in a fiery car crash. The two youngsters are left with only each other to depend upon -- to "count on," as the title implies. The story resumes years later.

Sammy is divorced, the mother of 8-year-old Rudy, played beautifully by the youngest of the Culkin acting clan, Rory Culkin. Still living in her parents' house in Scottsville, the quiet upstate New York town where she grew up, Sammy is trying to live her life as a fully functioning adult.


Her ne'er-do-well brother Terry is an entirely different story. A drifter who refuses to grow up and accept responsibility for his own life, Terry is suffering from a full-blown case of the Peter Pan complex.

Matthew Broderick (an old school friend of Lonergan) has a small but pivotal role as Brian, Sammy's anal-retentive boss at a small local bank. The two get caught up in a meaningless affair that almost overwhelms their lives. Also in a little but vital part is Jon Tenney playing Bob, the man Sammy thinks she should marry. But his marriage proposal proves to be too little, too late.

When Terry comes home for a visit, with the obvious intent of borrowing money and leaving as quickly as possible, Sammy is at first delighted to see him. She tries to pull him back into her stabilized little world, but he'll have nothing to do with her plans. However, when he's faced with the reality of having nowhere to go, Terry decides to stay for a while and bond with his nephew.

Gradually, the siblings learn from each other. Sammy loosens up a bit and reclaims some of her life. Terry, influenced by his relationship with Rudy, begins acting more responsible and even starts to cherish the value of family.

Faith, trust explored

This is essentially a character-driven film, and nothing is tied up neatly with a bow at the end. Emotions are messy things and don't always come with a neat conclusion, and Lonergan acknowledges that. The film's main theme, he has said, is "having faith in someone who may not have necessarily earned it."

Executive-produced by Martin Scorcese, this movie is decidedly an independent project with no cute little Hollywood ending tacked on. Everything from the dialogue to the sets and costumes feel real and organic. All of the supporting players are well cast, with Lonergan himself even playing a small role as Sammy's clergyman.

Universal issues such as trust, faith and family are explored in this excellent film, which tied with "Girlfight" for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.

If you see "You Can Count On Me," you can count on a good, emotionally satisfying experience.

"You Can Count On Me" opened in limited release on Friday, November 10, and will expand to more theaters on November 22. Rated R for adult language, some light drug use and mild sexual content. 109 minutes.


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