Nov 21, 2000

You Can Count on Me

Kenneth Lonergan's film shows us the difference between drama and melodrama. Because we see true drama so rarely it is a surprise when it comes along. What is called drama in Hollywood is almost always melodrama. Melodrama is about going big: the shocking reveal, resorting to the gun, the character who goes mad. It's exciting, it's surprising, but it's almost never honest. It is fake drama, and for that reason, the emotion doesn't hit home with the audience.

This film is real drama. Sammy, a woman with an eight-year-old boy and a job at the bank, endures a visit from a fun but unreliable brother. They don't shoot each other, no one goes mad, no one molests the little kid. But there is real conflict and honest emotion. The brother eventually leaves and the sister and her son stay behind in the town. But they are all deeply changed by their time together.

Notice how the writer sets up both brother and sister as likable people with serious flaws. He's a Tom Sawyer, a mischevous fun-lover who's also unreliable. She is a decent stable woman who locks herself into her way of life and falls into relationships with men because she feels sorry for them. No one is evil in this film. Not even the loser father.

The quality of the drama makes the film's one false note stand out even more clearly. Sammy's affair wiyth her boss isn't set up properly to be believable. So it becomes obvious that the writer is using the event to force the plot to go where he wants it to go.

One other lesson: notice how Lonergan often starts scenes late or ends them early. This not only gives the story economy it makes it feel more real.