In this, his directorial debut, writer director, Kenneth Logernan, brings us a truly honest, yet sensitive story. It is an indie film which combines all the necessary ingredients, without failing where other potentially great indie movies do. What separates this movie from mainstream movies is that it is essentially a very simple story, basically it reflects a section of a few days in the lives of fairly ordinary people. This however is by no means a weakness, as will be discussed.
This essay will be a study on the construction of the story of "You can count on Me", aiming to examine how the plot helps in telling the story. As mentioned, the story itself is fairly simple. It's the segment out of the lives of a few ordinary characters. More specifically, the movie is about a woman, Sammy (Laura Linney), the mother of an eight year old boy, Rudy (Rory Culkin), how she interacts with her son and the other residents of Scottsville, NY, and how she deals with the return home of her somewhat self-destructive brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo).
Orphaned as a child, her life has managed to get quite complicated. She has a pretty mundane job at a bank, her new boss is a pain, she is getting marriage proposals from her on-off boyfriend Bob, who she doesn't particularly love and now her renegade brother, whom she definitely has a soft spot for, arrives home wanting some money. Being an independent movie, Logernan has had the freedom to tell the story the way he wants it told. To that end, the movie really doesn't follow a very visible plot act structure.
There is no formulaic development, nobody needs rescuing, nobody dies tragically, no bad guy with malicious intent and no thrown in, obvious tearjerker scenes. What the movie does include is some honest, believable characters, who just want what we all want from life - to know what to want from life, and have at least a vague idea of how to go about getting some of it. As mentioned, this is essentially Sammy's story. We meet her at a time in her life when it seems he has little to no control over what happens from one day to the next.
In a pertinent shot of her driving to or from picking up her kid she turns up the car radio. At frist she looks annoyed, then we expect her to start singing along, however we are left with the impression that perhaps she is drowning out her thoughts. The possible symbolism here is that her car and radio seem to be the only things she has any real control over. What makes this movie such a success is the believability of the characters. We have all gone through times in our lives when we feel quite out of control of everything.
Saying that touches on some of the themes of the story. What is the ideal family structure? Knowing who we are and what we ant out of life. The role of religion in society, but again and again the story touches on the issue of love and togetherness within a family, which in my opinion is the central issue Logernan is exploring. What separates this story from most others and possibly the factor that makes it difficult for many to watch, is that there is no classic antagonist, and therefore no archetypal objective.
The antagonist could be the weaknesses within each of the main characters, the objective, therefore, being to overcome or learn to live with these character flaws i. e. Sammy and Terry, for really this story belongs to both brother and sister. If we examine further, with Sammy, her inner battle is her confidence, her belief in her self. At the beginning we see a Sammy who is eager to please and quick to apologise. For example her meeting with Terry at the restaurant, and her first meeting with her boss. Toward the end of the movie she comes across a lot more confident, a lot more sure of her own rights and needs.
For Terry, throughout the movie he seems to behave in much the same way, quite lost, quite angry, with moments of great concern and love. But this is not an essay on character development. In short Terry needs to come to terms with his bitterness toward the town and all it represents. But the beauty of this movie is that it really doesn't conform to any Hollywood standard. With Terry especially, by the last shot he is much the same as he was at the first. To that end the movie lacks something, pretence. The movie is not at all self indulgent, as many "art movies" tend to be.
True, it is a personal story, but the themes are universal, and most importantly, whatever messages it holds, are presented in such a subtle sensitive way that they only underscore and add to the reality of the characters and their believable, internal dramas. The story is however still a story, and Logernan manages to construct it in such a way so as to include the necessary emotionally engaging elements. The characters do finds themselves in predicaments, and it is through these that we the audience are most able to relate. The predicaments are very related to the objectives, for indeed what is the objective, bar overcoming the predicament.
Therefore, I feel the predicament Sammy finds herself in is the chaos that becomes her life. The affair with her boss, the unwanted marriage proposals, the destructive brother the irritating job, and the son that needs caring for. For Terry, his predicament is more physical. He finds himself in need and is forced to go back to Scottsville, which he hates. Being trapped there, carries with it emotional baggage. Old memories are brought up and he is forced to confront himself in ways his constant running around doesn't cater for.
But in so doing, and over those few days back in Scottsville, it seems he does learn quite a bit. This might seem to contradict what I said earlier, but let me explain. Terry in particular, doesn't experience the standard character growth we're used to, almost right up till the last scene he displays the same errors of judgement, same inability to accept responsibility, but then a turning appoint occurs when he goes to the graveyard. The next time he sees Sammy he shows genuine compassion, reassuring his concerned sister. He is still pretty directionless, not sure where he is going, but he seems content and happy.
He shows a blind confidence that everything will work out fine, and we believe this. As she drives off she has an unreadable expression, then as she lowers her window, reminding us of the only thing she or any of us can have total control of, she seems to have a slight "it's all gonna be alright" look on her face. A number of times along the way we can see how the plot helps the story of You can count on me. As I've stated all along, the plot is quite unstructured, which is indicative of the type of story being told, and the nature of the story being told.
This movie shows us that life isn't predictable or controllable, a bit like the weather, and to this, the plot isn't controlled or predictable. In a set up scene, the parents are shown to be killed. Then we are shot forward in time for slice of life Lobernan wanted to share was an adult slice, and this is in many ways an adult movie. In many ways the plot doesn't go anywhere. Small nonchalant scenes are revealed of the characters' lives, for truly these characters are not extra-ordinary people. We are shown their daily routines, what they eat, what music they like, how they spend their days.
I find the plot beautifully paced and constructed, fitting the overall mood and tone of the story. The editor cuts meaningfully to shots of the church, just before or after a pertinent message has been presented. Another technique I like is the way they (Sammy and Terry) are both shown smoking whenever they seem to feel alone. The pacing and tension are both fairly continual, with little evidence of when an act break occurs. In my opinion act 1 ends after the fight in the restaurant, or after the next scene once we've established that he'll be staying for a while.
The scene is set for act 2 and we can spend it developing, rather in this story, discovering, their relationship. About mid way through the movie there is a beautiful scene, which I will call a plot point, when she is driving home from meeting Brian at the hotel. I feel it functions as a plot point for it re-orientates us, rather it gives us great, directed insight into how she is feeling. In this scene, she initially chuckles, then almost guffaws before finally despairing at the mess her life has become. All this without even saying a word; truly one of the strengths of this movie is its performances.
Then we could say that the end of act 2 occurs after the Terry Rudy (snr) fight. From here on the plot is brought together and almost wound up. Bearing in mind that this movie is not meant to end, the characters simply carry on with their lives. Another factor, which makes this film so successful, is the way it's subplots are constructed and meshed together. As in real life, we are all interconnecting with each other, behaving in different ways, and within these interactions and fronts exists the real person.
In You can count on me, there is the main Sammy/Terry plot, then there is the Terry/Brian plot, and the Terry/Rudy plot as well as the minor Terry/Bob plot. These are weaved together with almost perfect harmony, taking us on an emotional ride at just the right moment in just the right direction, to give us what the filmmaker wanted. A glimpse into the lives of a few ordinary, yet extra-ordinary people, which in fact is just what "ordinary" people are. You can count on me could be the story of anybody, anywhere. That's how universally it speaks to us. This story is almost impossible to criticize.
Within its genre it is flawless. It definitely isn't what a lot of people want or expect from the cinema, but for a viewer who appreciates true art in moving image form, this film is superb. Somewhat ironically, considering it is a "slice of pie" movie, it is a timeless and universal story. Anyone who has lived in a family or had a sibling or loved one will appreciate its message of family love and the strength of a home. The plot highlights these themes and the overall story beautifully. It is the honest yet sensitive manner in which this tale is presented that makes this one of the best movies in its genre.