Laura Linney is my favorite criminally under-appreciated actress, so pardon me while I gush for a moment about her performance in "You Can Count On Me," a small movie with a resounding ring of truth about an orphaned brother and sister whose lives have taken them in vastly divergent directions.
Linney (the wife in "The Truman Show," the daughter in "Absolute Power," Mary Ann Singleton on "Tales of the City") plays Sammy, the responsible older sister who grew comfortable with small town life and still lives in the house she inherited when her parents were killed in a car crash when she was a child.
She's a fairly nondescript single mom utterly devoted to her young son (Rory Culkin) -- the kind of character who wouldn't be more than background in any movie a major studio might produce. But Linney inhabits every fiber of Sammy's ordinary being, exposing so clearly her heart, her psyche, her hopes and fears that she becomes -- in only a few minutes of screen time -- someone the audience cares about deeply and more deeply as the film goes on. Linney doesn't go trolling for the character's eccentricities, she simply portrays such a vivid, genuine sense of who this woman is that she feels like a long-lost friend. (End gush.)
In the story, however, the one who is long-lost is her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo, "Committed"), a misery junkie who never got his act together and it's beginning to catch up with him. Embittered Terry has drifted back into town to ask his sister for money, but she's hoping to tie him down for a while and maybe help break his years-long free fall.
Ruffalo matches Linney's determined-to-be-hopeful intensity with his character's percolating contempt for life. Sure, Terry will stay for a while and work a few odd jobs. He'll buddy up to his nephew the way grown men do when they're not comfortable with their adulthood, and he'll screw that up. But when his sister tries to help put his train back on track (her kind of track, admittedly), Terry will blow a fuse, accuse her of interference, and blow a day watching "Jerry Springer" and making a dent in her couch.
The way Terry habitually sabotages himself gives the film a story arc that may be easy to anticipate -- his escalating irresponsibility, sometimes involving Sammy's son, leads to sibling strife. But "You Can Count On Me" is a quiet, uncomplicated movie about the nuances and limits of familial affinity, and moment by moment writer-director Kenneth Lonegran brings such authentic humanity to this relationship it would be hard to not feel a involved and invested in these people's lives.