Delicate business is being transacted in this quietly devastating stunner about two estranged siblings, Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo), who try to bond as adults. Linney and Ruffalo give richly detailed performances that rank with the year's best in a film without an ounce of Hollywood fat on it, just humor and heartbreak, superbly rendered. The man of the hour is Kenneth Lonergan, the gifted playwright (This Is Our Youth, The Waverly Gallery), here making a vibrant directing debut. Lonergan has an ear for dialogue that is poetically attuned to the nuances of everyday speech. In the first scene, a wife driving home with her husband asks, "Why do they always put braces on teenage girls at the exact moment they're most self-conscious about their appearance?" A truck rears up, there's a crash, and two young kids at home in upstate New York are suddenly orphans.
That line about the moments in life that scar us resonates as Lonergan picks up the story with the adult Terry returning home after a long period away to see his sister, who is now the single mother of eight-year-old Rudy (Rory Culkin, Macaulay's brother, who shows real talent). Sammy is the responsible provider, sublimating her wilder side to become a churchgoing pillar of small-town life with a sensible job at a bank. Terry is the fuck-up, a hot-tempered nomad out to hustle a few bucks off sis. Terry's short visit, in which he tries to reconnect with Sammy and forge a bond with Rudy, is the core of the movie.
OK, it sounds like TV-movie pap. Nothing in Lonergan's previous work as a screenwriter (Analyze This, Rocky and Bullwinkle) prepares you for what he accomplishes here with the transforming power of his art. Even the unlikely affair Sammy starts up with a tight-assed, married bank manager (Matthew Broderick in a terrific cameo) pays off in unexpected character revelations. Linney is a wonder, letting complicated emotions crack Sammy's fragile composure. And stage actor Ruffalo scores a breakthrough, giving his role an intimate intensity that bears comparison to early Brando and the late James Dean. In the final scene, Sammy sits with Terry on a bus-stop bench, two grown-up orphans struggling with feelings they can't articulate. There may be bigger, costlier, weightier films this year. There's none lovelier.