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If any American film of the last ten years speaks to us on a human level it is Ken Lonergan’s  You Can Count On Me – starring Laura Linney as the single mom Samantha Prescott (Sammy), saddled with more responsibility than she knows what do with.  Brought into the mix are a taciturn son Rudy (Rory Culkin), problematic brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) and indecisive boyfriend Bob (John Tenney).

You Can Count On Me reminds me somewhat of the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, although O’Connor dealt with the South and this film does not – and yet, both O’Connor and Lonergan have a similar mission statement.  For O’Connor, the challenge was to portray decidedly fundamentalist Southerners in such a way to contrast their belief systems with a type of compassion that Catholics seem more apt to embrace than Southern Baptists.  Lonergan has a similar mission statement (he himself plays a priest in the film) in that a pervasive attitude of empathy and compassion become what drives the characters. Both O’Connor and Lonergan can be said to embrace a Christian Realism (or humanism). For Lonergan, this exploration ends with reconciliation and forgiveness – the ability for characters to recognize their own flaws and forgive them in themselves and others – that the film so eloquently conveys.  For this reason Lonergan is unlikely to be accused of the nihilism that some say haunts O’Connor’s work.

The film also poses a question: where are the strong men?  Or rather – what is the changing definition of womanhood and manhood – and by inference, strength?   Sammy has no husband because her ex was decidedly authoritarian and anti-female – or at least anti-feminine. Sammy’s brother Terry informs Rudy Jr. that his father ‘always had to show he was better’. Rudy Sr’s attitude is competitive and domineering while Terry relates to Rudy Jr., several years his junior, as a peer.

Linney’s character of Sammy brings together masculine and feminine traits – she dominates her boyfriend Bob and seeks non-committal sex outside of that relationship. Linney becomes an emblem of the modern woman who must fend for herself.  The responsibility she bears is brought on by the reality of her son – and the reality of the death of her parents – who both died in a car accident. She now takes on the role of her mother and father, minding the house as the responsible core of the family, whereas brother Terry drifts in and out of relationships and jobs, not willing to commit, nor be a disciplinarian. But Sammy too, is unwilling to commit. In the end, the brother-sister relationship is what binds the family together, and why Sammy cannot bear to see Terry part as the flawed proxy father-figure of the family.  That her most important relationship must be her sibling – and by inference, sexless – tells us that Sammy has a fundamental problem with submitting to a dominant male resulting from the dysfunctional relationship that she had with her ex Rudy Sr., and displayed in her need to dominate her boyfriend Bob and have non-committal sex with her boss (played by Matthew Broderick).

In an uncertain world, drifting values and drifting responsibilities lead to weakness in men. We also live in a permissive age in the West, and have for many decades, where we are allowed essentially free reign regarding many moral issues and see any encroachment on this as negative. Sammy is reacting to such a state. Sammy seeks a father figure in her Father Ron (played by Lonergan) and wants him to tell her “she’s going to hell” for having sex with her boss – something he refuses to do.  She seeks a God that no longer exists – a father figure for her son and herself – but the world will not provide one. Again, the definition of ‘strength’ is at issue – for clearly strength is not what Rudy Sr., her ex, displayed. Nor is it displayed in her boyfriend Bob, nor Priest Ron who believes that God forgives all. Where then, lies strength?

To Lonergan, the now anachronistic strong father is missing and God is Dead. Or at least the God that we knew that demands anything of us. The New God – one might say the New Testament as portrayed by Father Ron – is decidedly compassionate and, in a strange way, nonjudgmental – as indecisive as her boyfriend Bob, who seems to have little reaction when Sammy decides she doesn’t want to marry him. Lonergan’s God is one that is compassionate yet guiltless — and Sammy is faced with a life that holds the possibility of being both liberated from guilt and defined on her own terms as a woman. She seems to long for someone to be accountable, and the only answer is to look at herself.

What is left when God is both absent and unaccountable is people’s love for one another, or the possibility of such. From the film’s perspective, this is where real strength lies. Lonergan’s absent God leaves us to fend for ourselves in a melancholy sense of abandonment, much as Terry, Sammy and Rudy Jr. were abandoned by their parents when they died in a fatal accident. But that abandonment was not due to choice, but fate. This fate brings promise and loss.

When confronted with tragic fate, what do we do? When God is no longer present, and we feel the absence of God, what do we do? The Buddhists actually belief there is no God – that god is in fact ‘emptiness’ and out of that emptiness we, as humans, can forge a compassionate world.  It is this emptiness that pervades You Can Count On Me, where the only thing you can count on is a melancholy sense that we have lost something that cannot be regained unless we embrace a compassionate and forgiving attitude toward one another, and find strength in those bonds. As such the film is a Buddhist, and humanist, treatise on human possibility absent an Old Testament God.

Like my own film, Clouds, Lonergan’s film was released just prior to our Decade of Terror – where unaccountable “strength” has ruled supreme and we are dealing with its ramifications.  Both films  showed a promise of human relationships and a definition of men and  manhood that would be walloped by the Bush years – a time where we sought to react to the moral drift apparent in You Can Count On Me.  Interestingly, Lonergan has had many problems making films since then, but will (hopefully) release his next feature, Margaret, by 2011. The Bush years saw Lonergan pretty much absent from film, except for a screenwriting stint on Gangs of New York (directed by Martin Scorsese).

I found it interesting that Martin Scorsese executive produced Lonergan’s film. Scorsese is a Catholic (although by his admission, a ‘lapsed’ one) and loves the kind of compassionate and humanistic reflections on existence portrayed in Italian Neo-Realist films. But Scorsese does not often venture into the territory of You Can Count On Me, not at least since Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – another film about a single mom with relationship issues. Let’s hope that Scorsese will continue to support this kind of film.

My sense is that over time You Can Count On Me will be seen as a singular American Masterpiece of humanistic storytelling. And let’s hope Lonergan will turn again to this type of material in the future. It has long been absent in American filmmaking, and much more needed. While we’ve seen one You Can Count On Me in the last 10 years, how many comic book movies have we been asked to endure?

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