Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, the winner of two of Sundance’s biggest prizes, seems like a TV movie. A well-written, sympathetically acted TV movie, to be sure, but so timid and clumsy in its deployment of picture, sound, and editing that you have to wonder if executive producer Martin Scorsese bothered to give notes.
Orphaned when their parents were killed in a car crash, Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) have reacted differently to their childhood trauma. Sammy, a bank-loan officer, is still living in the house where they were born, raising her son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), on her own. Terry, the younger and wilder of the two, has spent his post-high school life on the road, returning home only when he needs to borrow money. His latest visit, precipitated by a three-month jail stint and his girlfriend’s pregnancy, coincides with several crises in Sammy’s carefully ordered life: Brian (Matthew Broderick), her nitpicking new manager, refuses to allow her the afternoon break she needs to drive Rudy from school to his baby-sitter’s house; Rudy has become curious about his dad’s identity and whereabouts; and Bob (Jon Tenney), her longtime beau, is pressuring her to marry him. While Terry’s reappearance at first seems to solve the child-care problem, Sammy quickly becomes concerned that Terry is not the best role model for Rudy.
You Can Count on Me is set in Scottsboro, a small town in upstate New York so generic and underpopulated that the film could have been shot on a studio back lot. Lonergan plunks his characters down in various locations—the bank, the porch, the motel room—that might as well be stage sets, and he has no sense of how to create an expressive film space. Perhaps to compensate, he lays on the music with a heavy hand: a Bach cello piece to indicate introspection and a dozen country songs that spell out exactly what the characters are doing or feeling. When Sammy is driving to an assignation with the married bank manager, she flicks on the radio to Loretta Lynn singing, “I’m the other woman in your life.”
Lonergan does get excellent performances from his actors. Broderick is even more smug and smarmy here than he was in Election (at one point he hurls himself on Linney like a bear cub who doesn’t care if he’s caught in the honey pot), and the grave-faced Culkin is so alive and direct he barely seems to be acting. Always an exciting actor, Ruffalo makes Terry the quick-fisted prodigal son who returns to a town that’s too confining for his discordant impulses, but his pouting lips betray the abandoned, frightened five-year-old inside. Linney, who has to carry the film, finds the vulnerability beneath Sammy’s capable, controlled exterior. Sammy’s problem, as she explains to her minister (played by Lonergan as a bumbling wise man), is that she’s drawn to men she feels sorry for—in other words, men she can mother as she wishes she’d been mothered herself.
It’s not just the invocation of faith and family that marks You Can Count on Me as a conservative film. Its gender politics are thoroughly retrograde. When the inexperienced new manager imposes his absurd rules on the women in his office, they don’t even get together to strategize, let alone confront him outright. Not just aesthetically unadventurous, You Can Count on Me is, in every way, a throwback to the Eisenhower age.
A much more progressive view of how we got from the ’50s to wherever we are now, Helen Garvy’s Rebels With a Cause is a history of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the vanguard organization of the New Left formed in 1960 by a few dozen college students who believed in the Bill of Rights and were horrified by TV news footage of police mauling civil rights demonstrators in the South. In the early ’60s, SDS focused on community activism, but as American involvement in Vietnam grew, it was drawn into the antiwar struggle. In 1970, SDS membership had grown to 100,000, but the leaders—deeply divided over tactics and burnt out on a decade of activism—disbanded the organization. “We were caught up inside our own psychodrama,” says Bernardine Dohrn, one of the most articulate SDS leaders interviewed in the film. Dohrn was also a leader of Weatherman (or the Weather Underground), the militant breakaway group that decided to oppose the war “by any means necessary.” Weatherman was decimated when three of its members blew themselves up building a bomb in a Greenwich Village townhouse.
Besides offering a comprehensive picture of the development of SDS, Rebels With a Cause corrects the popular misperception that SDS and Weatherman were one and the same. Through interviews with more than 20 former members, most still involved in political activism and education, the film testifies to the legacy of SDS. Notable in its absence is any discussion of how these veterans, some of the most vibrant and intelligent fiftysomethings to grace a movie screen, view the left today, particularly the demonstration in Seattle last fall. Garvy has worked hard to weave the interviews into an exciting narrative, but the focus is perhaps too narrow for the film to be as politically effective as it could have been.
Sharing the Screening Room’s documentary slot is the lighter-weight Angel’s Ladies, Doug Lindeman’s portrait of a mom-and-pop whorehouse in Beatty, Nevada, where prostitution has been legal for long enough to make the city planning commission declare it necessary for the economy and the health of its citizens.
When Mack Moore, a 70-year-old cemetery honcho, and Angel, his second wife, got tired of carrying the weight of their past lives, they relocated from rainy Oregon to sunny Nevada. There, they bought Fran’s Star Ranch, a small brothel located between Death Valley and the Nuclear Weapons Testing Range, and renamed it Angel’s Ladies. Religious fundamentalists, the Moores viewed their new business as not very different from their old one: Both enabled them “to service human needs.”
With their Christian rationales, Mack and Angel seem a bit delusional. Not so the three prostitutes who work for them: ranch hand and nature girl Kevin, middle-class career woman Linda, and Melody, the most politically sophisticated, who’s saving her money so she won’t be “one man away from homelessness.” There’s more tell than show in the documentary, which eventually takes the form of an argument between labor and management. The prostitutes fault Mack for trying to “date” his own girls (“I didn’t want to give the money to my competitors,” he counters) and Angel for starting to turn tricks at age 55. But Angel believes she’s merely “giving comfort” to the elderly and disabled who would otherwise be turned away by choosy “independent contractors.”
Crosscutting between the two sides, Lindeman gives everyone equal time. But according to the head of the local health clinic, Angel’s Ladies is doomed any way you look at it. With prostitution legalized, big corporations are eating the small-time operations alive.