The BFI is showing all of Kenneth Lonergan's films at the moment, and given that Margaret is is an all time favourite of mine, I invited my mum along to see his debut feature. You Can Count On Me also focuses on a single mother (superbly played by Laura Linney), but the wayward child here is her younger brother – an awkward and volatile Mark Ruffalo. The siblings are orphaned at a young age, and each reacts in contrasting ways to their bereavement. Linney stays in her parents' house and tries to build a stable environment for her son. Ruffalo gets out as soon as he can, and ends up drifting around the United States.
The film is a compilation of scenes prodding at this dynamic. Like Margaret, you get the sense that a lot more material was shot, with the strongest sequences edited together. Sometimes the seams show through – occasionally you can tell that a scene has had bits sliced out of it. But that extra bit of shooting probably allowed the actors to spend more time inhabiting their characters – and we get to see several sides of them. Ruffalo has to become more responsible when living with his sister. And Linney reveals that she's more reckess than she at first appears.
The one big discordant note for me was when Lonergan appears in his own film as the village priest giving counsel to both Lilley and Ruffalo. The wise religious figure is a cliche anyway, and casting yourself as the authoritative font of wisdom feels a tad adolescent. The message itself is interesting however – and echoes some of the current debates around 'post-liberalism' in the UK. Ruffalo's rejection of religion is part of a general abjuration of the parochial community he grew up in. But leaving behind your roots makes you rootless – unable to navigate through relationships or jobs. The only reason Ruffalo survives is because he is anchored by his sister. He knows that wherever he he ends up, he can rely on her to be where she's always been.
In fact, this is Lilley's film to carry. Lonergan (as the dog-collared chief interpreter of his own film) is there to coax out Lilley's confession that the relationships with the men in her life are based on pity. She goes out of her way because she feels sorry for them. It's a revelatory admission. Lilley is more together than her brother, lover or boss. She wants to be able to count on them, but they all end up counting on her.