Terry Prescott (Mark Ruffalo) is the kind of guy who drifts unnoticed through the American vastness, doing itinerant day labor, falling into barroom brawls and inappropriate relationships. His sister Sammy (Laura Linney) is ostensibly his opposite. She's a single mom who has stayed in their upstate New York hometown, where she raises her son by a rigid book and works faithfully as the loan officer in a bank branch. "You Can Count on Me" simply narrates what happens when the goofus comes home to sponge some money from the doofus and incidentally, almost accidentally, stirs an emotional frenzy. It is also, just possibly, the best American movie of this fast-dwindling year.
It is admittedly a small thing. It contains just four fully developed characters, who in addition to the leads include Sammy's overprotected son Rudy (Rory Culkin, the latest addition to the acting dynasty) and Matthew Broderick's bank manager, a comically annoying anal compulsive with a hidden concupiscent side. The latter gets a workout when it speaks suddenly to Sammy's trimly repressed side.
But that's almost a side issue. What counts in this movie is the developing relationship between Terry and Rudy. Terry may be a loser, but he's not a dope. His damage, and his sister's, stems from their having been orphaned as children. That accounts for her caution and his incaution. She thinks she has to keep her life small and manageable, so she has little to lose. He believes that since life is full of mischance, you might just as well wander and risk. So he brings Rudy along on an odd job where he teaches him how to pound a nail straight, involves him in a game down at the pool hall and, riskiest of all, introduces the boy to his real father.
What saves Terry from being really harmful is his fundamental sweetness. You can count on him, after a fashion. He may invariably choose the messy route, but he's always aiming for the right, truthful place, and Ruffalo's performance is a wonderful blend of the winning and the exasperating. Linney matches him step for wrangling step as a woman too smart and too pretty for the trap she has chosen, someone who will, we guess, never escape her dutiful, churchgoing life except for those moments when her inner wildness spills out.
But the best thing about "You Can Count on Me" is its tone. The writer-director, Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote "Analyze This," is good with silences unforced, often inarticulate emotions. Above all, he doesn't push his material beyond its naturalistic limits. He doesn't sentimentalize it or melodramatize it. He trusts the fact that he's exploring a relationship not much studied in the movies the bond between brother and sister to sustain our interest. He is content to keep his frame and his comic, angry surprises small. Yet a great intensity results from this steady, persistent compression. Maybe these lives are, objectively speaking, inconsequential. But they have a resonance that big, sappy "relationship" pictures ought to envy.