(director/writer: Kenneth Lonergan; cinematographer: Stephen Kazmierski; editor: Anne McCabe; cast: Laura Linney (Sammy Prescott), Mark Ruffalo (Terry Prescott), Matthew Broderick (Brian), Jon Tenney (Bob), Rory Culkin (Rudy), J. Smith- Cameron (Mabel), Josh Lucas (Rudy Sr.), Gaby Hoffmann (Sheila), Adam LeFevre (Sheriff Darryl), Kenneth Lonergan (Priest); Runtime: 111; Paramount Classics/A Shooting Gallery release; 2000)

“This film offers a literate script and is sensitively directed, it’s a brilliant debut as a director for playwright Kenneth Lonergan.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An impactful human interest drama about the anxious relationship between two adult siblings who will always remain close despite their differences because of their tragic upbringing that made them cling to each other for comfort. As youngsters their parents died in a car accident. This film offers a literate script and is sensitively directed, it’s a brilliant debut as a director for playwright Kenneth Lonergan (co-scripted “Analyze This!“). Besides writing the screenplay and directing it, he also has a minor part as a religious counselor. It is so well-conceived a work that it never feels stagy, as many other films of this type tend to be. The film was a co-winner of this year’s Sundance grand jury prize and recipient of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.

Laura Linney gives a smashing performance as a single mother of an eight year old, whose conservative lifestyle in the fictional small upstate New York town of Scottsville becomes challenged when her younger brother visits after being away for a few years. He is a drifter who pictures himself as an outsider and is happiest when he’s on the move to far off places like Alaska. He is played with deep feelings by Mark Ruffalo.

The film opens in Worcester, Mass., with Terry (Ruffalo) leaving his impregnated and suicidal girlfriend Sheila, as he is unable to tell her convincingly that he loves her. He heads by bus to see his sister Sammy (Linney), hoping that he can borrow money to help him straighten out the situation with Sheila and, at the same time, to reestablish some lost links with his concerned sister.

The siblings nervously meet in a restaurant. Sammy is worried that Sammy has recently lost contact with her brother, while he feels out of place and very edgy to be back in his hometown — a place he finds narrow and dull. He can’t stop fidgeting and is dressed in a torn T-shirt, while she’s more formally dressed wearing an outfit she would normally wear when working at the local bank — where she’s a loan officer. The siblings have different personalities and have gone down different roads and even though there is a strong bond between them, what this restaurant meeting highlights is how different they also are. This scene brilliantly sets the tense tone for the remainder of the film.

Sammy accepts the limitations of her provincial life trying to raise her child the right way, but is instead smothering her sheltered child. She attends church services regularly, as she seeks out her priest for daily guidance and wants to believe wholeheartedly in the Catholic dogma. Sammy refuses to talk to her son about his father or how she was wild as a youth and one of her mistakes was in marrying the wrong guy, which resulted in a bitter divorce and her son Rudy (Rory Culkin) never knowing his redneck father or how rotten a person he really is. He instead imagines his missing father in a more glorious light. She also has an unsatisfying relationship with her ‘on-again and off-again’ boyfriend Bob (Jon Tenney), a real nice guy but who doesn’t turn her on and she is a very sexually turned on woman.

Living a life that is opposite to his sister’s, Terry believes what the church has to offer is a fairy tale. He is someone who can’t take responsibility for having a family of his own or to find direction in his life; and, he often gets in trouble because he makes bad decisions which result in frequent fights, one of those barroom brawls resulted in a three month jail sentence in Florida; that is why he lost contact with his sister, not wanting her to worry that he was in jail.

The sheer beauty in the film is in the natural bonding that develops between the curiously bright but lonely Rudy and the irresponsible Terry. An intimacy develops between them that benefits both in their need to grow up. Their unsettling yet intimate friendship grows from conversations that seem so natural and from the child needing a different perspective to chew on besides having only his mother’s. The bad decisions Terry makes are not selfish ones, but are the one’s he makes because he means well but doesn’t always know how to do the right thing. For example, he sneaks Rudy into the local bar to play pool without his mother’s knowledge and gets him to lie to her about where he was. Terry will, also, on a whim, take Rudy to the nearby town of Auburn to meet his real father (Josh Lucas), who is living with another woman. Rudy Sr. refuses to admit that Rudy is his son and his anger grows against Terry for bringing him around; the two get into a brawl, which results in Terry’s arrest.

Sammy’s life grows confusing as an adulterous relationship develops with a new bank manager, Brian (Broderick), whose unfriendly wife is pregnant. He’s a twit that no one in the bank likes, as he tries to enforce in a stiffly polite way petty and meaningless rules. Somehow Sammy has a penchant for being vulnerable for the wrong type of man, and mistakes her pity for romance.

Sammy and Rudy touch something about themselves in Terry’s short summertime visit, something they wouldn’t have touched that was so real without Terry being there as a catalyst for change. What the three of them are all looking for is something real to believe in. This subtle drama is satisfying in almost every respect, but mainly as a realistic presentation of working-class characters who are struggling with the mundane problems of everyday existence. Their small problems are seen by them as gigantic. Sammy wants the church to tell her authoritatively what is right or wrong instead of giving her their feel-good evasive answers. She is afraid that in her wildest feelings she can be tempted to secretly smoke grass or cigarettes, or to have an illicit affair. Her wild nature leaves her feeling guilty and unsure of what to believe in, as she is looking for someone to love but can’t find anyone in her limited environment. She acts outwardly conservative in the hope that she can be perceived as a good mother to Rudy. While Terry wants answers to come to him which relate to his particular situation, as he’s trying to get in touch with how he really feels inside. In the meantime Rudy awakens from his sheltered childhood, as he sees for the first time how the real world can be both a cruel and loving place. He will stop looking for his real father as a role model and will try finding someone else to look up to.

This is a superbly acted and subtle work, whose only flaws are in the unbelievable romance between boss and worker and the artificial lovemaking depicted between Sammy and her townie boyfriend. But, otherwise, this is one of the best films of 2000, and indie art film with an intensity and a strong sense of realistic dramatics that truly brings out the complex emotional problems of the main characters.