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Family is a funny thing. You get who you get. That can be a good thing or, well, something else entirely. For Sammy (Laura Linney), a single mother trying to keep her own life together, it is both. A long time before, her parents were killed in a car accident, and since then, she and her brother have led very different lives. While she has remained in the town she grew up in, Terry (Mark Ruffalo) has drifted around the country, never really fitting in anywhere. She has always felt a connection with him, perhaps because of the loss that galvanized them at such young ages, but Terry has a different interoperation of that bond. It is a pressure he squirms to be free of.
One day, after a lengthy absence, Terry calls and says he coming to visit. Sammy and her young son, Rudy (Caulkin) are naturally happy. Rudy, quiet, timid, and sheltered under the protective wing of his mother, has never met his father. The man is a mystery for the boy, a vision cobbled together from a few sparse details his mother eludes to. Uncle Terry is the only male role model he knows. As role models go, there are better and there are worse, as he will soon learn.
Sammy has more on her plate than her brother. The new boss Brian (Matthew Broderick) is an odd sort creature. Seemingly arbitrary rules are enacted, and he refuses to allow her the 15 minutes she needs in the afternoon to pick up her son from school. Yet despite these peculiarities, an affair begins, despite his marriage. She is also involved with an old flame that has suddenly become restless and wants her hand far sooner than she expected. Meanwhile, Terry is taking liberties with his promise to look after Rudy while is at work, which is bad enough, but the money she lent him to help him find his way, is now gone, sent to a suicidal girlfriend instead. Things come to a head when Terry brings Rudy to see the boy’s real father, an unkind man who is bitter, dark, and furious with the intrusion. It boils to confrontation and eventually, Terry is arrested.
A moving slice of Americana, this small film garnered a lot of attention (and award nominations) for its two leads. The story isn’t about an arch or even resolution. It is simply a story about life and how sometimes it’s challenging, sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s hard, but always it keeps going.
Setup: Terry has only just arrived, his whereabouts still mostly a mystery to his sister who has spent a great effort to welcome him. They are in a diner and she is hopeful for their reunion.
Why it matters: Sammie is a woman of many halves. She has a son, but the father is gone. She has a good job, but should be the boss. She has boyfriend, but there is no passion. And she has a brother who can’t find his way home, even when he is standing right in the middle of it. Since their parents died, they have discovered different paths, but for Sammie, those paths were meant to cross more often. Terry loves his sister, but sees their relationship in complexity, held together by weakening scaffolds of too much pressure and guilt.
More: Revealing the truth about who and what you are to someone who has entirely different aspirations for you can be a frightful thing. Terry is not necessarily a bad guy. He’s just a little side-tracked in his life and too afraid to commit to anything. He learned very young that what you count on most can instantly disappear. He is in it for himself now, but finding that more and more he needs help. That means he must rely on Sammy, the only person that has never let him down, even though to get that kind of commitment, he must bear the weight of untold guilt whenever she is near. Sammy knows her role, but sees beyond it just have him near. Yet we know it is expectation that fuels her excitement. Like tuning into a TV show that was once great but now disappoints, she hopes this time it will be different. It isn’t.
Sammy is about appearances. She wants what lives only in her hopes, so she costumes her surroundings in that fantasy, thinking the illusion will kindle the reality. Before Terry arrives, she cooks lavish meals in preparation, including an apple pie. She dresses in warm colors and greets him with well-intentioned but obvious over-drama. It is a flawed plan at smothering what she knows will be the truth. She does her best to suspend the coming letdown as best she can. We suspect this is her nature and something she has done time and time again. The older sister, filling the void of her lost parents, became the voice of reason. And disappointment. She wants what is best for Terry, but is able only to see his faults, and perhaps after years of his meanderings, is too fragile to notice otherwise. We must wonder about the hope then. Why does she cling to him so? He is her brother and that, for her, is reason enough.
Laura Linney is nothing short of a wonder here. We see a decidedly independent woman in three decidedly dependent relationships. She is better than her boss but puts up with his quirky behavior, arguing to a point but always acquiescing. She has a boyfriend, but she is never a priority; she calls to schedule sex. And Terry is the wounded sole she must always heal. It is what defines her. This is our impression when we meet her, but much is revealed as the story progresses. Linney plays her so tight, so close to unraveling, it is a marvel to watch. She lives like she is shiny but thrives in the tarnish. We question her decision to sleep with her boss, but then see that there is a quiet revolution to her madness. She understands Brian all too well, especially after meeting his pregnant wife, whom is altogether the one wearing the proverbial pants in that marriage. It exposes a weakness, and there is a quick, awakening moment when we realize that Sammie has a plan. Her grand battle with him comes down to sex, the single most powerful weapon she can bring to the war, and he, as most men are, is unaware how deep this is will cut. When she unleashes its power, even she is surprised by its effect.
Matthew Broderick is also effective but his part is so fleeting he is lost in the shadow of Linney and Ruffalo. Still, he manages to create a memorable louse with a slimy disposition that is clearly a man well over his head. How he got the job as bank manager is unclear. Perhaps higher ups mistook proficiency and adherence to rules as signals of leadership, and tossed him into abyss, thinking he had skills to bring it to order. How they were wrong.
Sammy’s son Rudy is played by a very young Rory Caulkin. It’s always a gamble putting a child on screen, but Caulkin feels real in the part and is entirely believable, especially when he is in company with Ruffalo. Few young actors can bring the depth this type of role demands, but his quiet, inquisitive and naive appearance is very emotional. When little Rudy stands in the doorway of a father he is just meeting, seeing that the hero he was been fictionalizing in his storybook for school is anything but, it is heartbreaking.
And that brings us to Mark Ruffalo. In a breakout role, Ruffalo is a powerhouse, and utterly affecting in every scene. We know right away the death of his parents have scarred him more deeply than anything life can throw at him. What is he searching for out in the dead ends of America? How far must he be from the bucolic sleepy town of his childhood to be free of the demons that hover ceaselessly around his weary head? While we see that Sammy clings to him as kind of a project to keep safe, we know that despite his roaming nature, he is also a protector, taking in a despondent girlfriend who depends on him to the point of suicide when he is away. He speaks of Alaska as a place where he has once found happiness, and where he hopes to travel to again. To most, Alaska represents the last great wild country, a lonely and cold place where one goes to find themselves. And for Terry, it is far from home. Far from the memories and the guilt and disappointment. He is recently out of jail, for what he claims was an act of self defense. This is, we suspect, the beginning of that story for him, jail begin a place he will see again soon. For Sammie, Alaska and jail are the same. She weeps as he prepares to leave town, begging him to stay. “I feel like I’m never going to see you again,” she says.
We think the same.
Writer / director Kenneth Lonergan puts together something really special with Sammy and Terry, finding a connection most of us can make. As with anyone in our lives, we want them to be happy and find their way as best they can, hoping against hope that wherever they are, they know that someone loves them no matter what. It could be the brother or the sister living in the same house, or the one all the way on the other side of the world. We want them to know they are never alone. Everyone needs somebody sometime. Everyone needs someone to count on.
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Laura Linney, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo