Dec 16

“You Can Count On Me”: Brother and Sister Reconnect

For all the bullying inspirational slogans hurled at us about never giving up on your dream, following your bliss and today being the first day of the rest of your life, the fact remains that most people’s lives run on fairly narrow tracks. And in the real world, as opposed to self-help fantasyland, once you find yourself on a track, it’s awfully hard to get off, even if it’s headed nowhere in particular. Stephen Holden, reviewing You Can Count On MeThe New York Times,  

On the occasion of the underseen film The Skeleton Twins (see previous post) being released on DVD, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight another brother/sister film, the character-driven You Can Count On Me, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.  Not only was it one of the best movies of 2000 but also one of the best ever about sibling relationships. 

In brief, single-mom Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney), gets an unexpected visit from Terry (Mark Ruffalo), her brother and only sibling. FYI, their parents were killed in a car accident when they were kids.


Emanuel Levy, Variety: “Married and divorced at a young age, she’s an overprotective mother to her 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Sammy conceals from her son any info about his absentee father, but the curious, susceptible boy stubbornly harbors romantic notions about him. Her emotional involvement with Bob (Jon Tenney), a goodhearted but not terribly exciting man, only partially fulfills her needs as a woman.”

Desson Howe, Washington Post: “…(S)he’s having trouble with her nitpicking boss (perennial manchild Matthew Broderick), who’s unsympathetic toward her child issues and objects to such things as purple-colored text on computer screens.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Ms. Linney’s Samantha may be a responsible mother and churchgoing Catholic, but we learn that she was a wild teenager who has had to choke back her rebellious instincts in order to bring up her son. Even now, her innate rebelliousness still manifests itself in ways both small (she secretly smokes cigarettes) and large (she recklessly initiates an affair with her new boss, a persnickety straight arrow with a pregnant wife).”


Roger Ebert, “Terry is her easy-come, easy-go brother, one of those charmers who drives you nuts because you love him but you can’t count on them.”

Emanuel Levy, Variety: “He’s depicted as an irresponsible, self-destructive man with a penchant for getting into fights and being arrested. Leaving a pregnant girlfriend behind, Terry comes home to borrow money.”

Lisa Schwarzbaum, “He has pushed away grief by not committing anywhere, to anyone, and strewing mess in his wake.”


Desson Howe, Washington Post: “Sammy, who needs someone to watch Rudy, talks her brother into doing the honors. But although Terry connects wonderfully with Rudy, his idea of child care is hardly gleaned from Dr. Spock. He thinks nothing of lighting up a cigarette, cursing like a sailor and advising Rudy to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as he’s old enough.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “The culminating event, an excruciating, brilliantly executed scene of emotional chaos as old personal wounds are ripped open, is Terry’s impulsive, ill-advised decision to take Rudy on a surprise visit to meet his roughneck biological father (Josh Lucas) whom Samantha has built up as a hero to the boy.”


Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Samantha is furious and disappointed by her brother’s lack of direction and behavioral sloppiness. He in turn is contemptuous of her for remaining stuck in Scottsville, whose small-town atmosphere he finds suffocating.”

Carla Meyer, San Francisco Chronicle:

As adults, the siblings maintain their childhood confidant-adversary relationship. In one scene, they share a joint and a big secret before a casual remark turns into a testy exchange about Sammy’s parenting abilities. Later, when Sammy sends a clergyman to counsel the aimless Terry, he seems receptive, all the while plotting revenge on his sister. Just as any kid brother would.

The safety of their renewed family bond lets each sibling branch out. Sammy, so compulsively organized that she files personal correspondence along with her tax returns, rediscovers a wild side and engages in some surprising acts. Her brother, oblivious at first to Sammy’s need for him, warms to the idea of a family bond and becomes a father figure to Sammy’s son.

Oct 01

“The Skeleton Twins”: Each Sibling Has Become Suicidal

According to the website for Craig Johnson‘s new film The Skeleton Twins, “Family is a cruel joke.”

Johnson places his emphasis here on the relationship between a brother and sister (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader). Critic Andrew O’Hehir calls this new film “a potent sibling dramedy,” and Jonathan Kim (The Huffington Post) says it’s “movie siblings (finally) done right.”

Wiig and Hader, both well known for their stints on Saturday Night Live, are not, however, playing characters who have fun-filled lives. We know right from the start, in fact, that each is having serious suicidal thoughts. More like “Saturday Night Dead,” quips Richard Corliss, Time.

Geoff Berkshire, Variety, explains the plot further:

Aspiring actor Milo lives in Los Angeles and is fresh out of a failed relationship, while Maggie is a New York dental hygenist in a seemingly happy marriage to gregarious guy’s-guy Lance (Luke Wilson). Of the two, Milo is the one who goes through with it, slitting his wrists in a bathtub. It’s a phone call informing her that her brother is in the hospital that pulls Maggie back from the brink. She rushes to his side and, after some initial awkwardness, the ice is broken by a memorable gag involving ‘Marley and Me,’ effectively demonstrating their shared sense of humor.

Turns out they’ve been estranged for 10 years. Nevertheless, Milo lets his sister bring him back to Nyack, New York, the area where they grew up.


Jessica Zack, San Francisco Chronicle: “The twins share a dark sense of humor, and both grapple with why and how their lives became detached not just from each other, but from the paths of promise they thought were in store for them.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “Milo uses humor as a natural defense mechanism, even if it doesn’t always mask the grimace of discomfort, while the more outwardly thorny Maggie subjects herself and everyone around her to wild mood swings. ‘Landmines, dude,’ explains Lance, about the challenges of navigating his wife’s volatility.”

Things are gradually revealed in this film that would have had more impact on me, I think, if I hadn’t read the reviews beforehand. For the sake of those who need to have certain info, though, in order to assess whether to see a dysfunctional-family movie, I will give some basic specifics—starting now—including that their mom (Joanna Gleason) is New-Agey, self-involved, and unavailable and that their dad killed himself when they were teens.

For therapy buffs (is there such a thing?), we learn in a brief scene that Milo and Maggie were sent to a shrink way back when. And that they didn’t respond so well to continually being asked to journal, journal, journal.


Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “When he was 15, Milo was seduced by his high school English teacher (Ty Burrell), who is now back in the closet, with a 16-year-old son and trying to make his latest heterosexual relationship work. Milo’s return to Nyack unsettles this secret-laden educator, who now works in a bookstore.”


Richard Corliss, Time: “She hides her grief behind a suburban housewife’s little festival of passive-aggressive behavior. In a particularly desperate moment, she screams into a pillow. And when she tells Lance ‘I love you,’ she means ‘I want to love you but can’t.” Lance, who everyone agrees is the most decent guy in the world, has a knitted-brow heartiness that grates on Maggie. Not his fault: his jock adolescence matured into love for this sweet, strange woman he can’t quite understand.”


Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “One of the most rewarding aspects of ‘Skeleton Twins’ is the unlikely alliance that sprouts between Lance and Milo, two guys who could hardly be more different. It would have been awfully easy to make Lance a homophobic jerk, but he doesn’t seem bothered by Milo’s sexuality at all. Instead he’s a decent, loving man with relatively modest aspirations, who has to come to grips with the fact that he barely knows the woman who claims to love him but has repeatedly lied to him.”


Jonathan Kim, Huffington Post: “The Skeleton Twins is very funny, but with touching and heartfelt scenes to go along with the film’s themes of suicide, depression, disappointment, and infidelity. And there are other themes that most adults, particularly siblings, will relate to — the fear that you peaked in high school, the disappointments of adulthood, wondering if you’re the most screwed up of your siblings, the difficulties of being true to yourself, and the questions and chasms left behind by an absent parent.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “…The Skeleton Twins gets it right. Warm, funny, heartfelt and even uplifting, the film is led by revelatory performances from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, both of them exploring rewarding new dramatic range without neglecting their mad comedic skills.”

Geoff Berkshire, Variety: “…’The Skeleton Twins’ captures the way siblings develop their own unique comedic shorthands in a way few films ever have. Johnson also nails the flip side of that tight link: They’re capable of hurting each other like no one else can.”

May 23

“The Normal One”: And Having a “Difficult” Sibling

When you look in the mirror, your difficult sibling always looks back, though the image is distorted. In the shadows lurk parts of yourself and your past that you don’t want to notice. Behind the reflection, silently influencing the interaction, stand your parents, your grandparents, and all their siblings. Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., author of The Normal One

From the intro to Jeanne Safer‘s book about the so-called “normal” sibling—The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling (2002):

Nobody knows I have a brother. My best friends never hear his name. He has always been a source of embarrassment and discomfort for me, but I’ve never wondered very much about his impact on my life. Being his sister feels vaguely unreal and irrelevant; my destiny has nothing to do with his.

This is astonishing, because I am a psychotherapist who has spent years trying to understand my own and my patients’ childhoods. Somehow I’ve managed to erase my own closest relative.

I am not alone.

Safer’s relationship with her troubled older sibling, now deceased, is by no means unique. She interviewed over 60 other “normals” who meet the following description:

Cheerful caretakers, mature before their time, they are supposed to consider themselves lucky to be normal. They feel tormented by the compulsion to compensate for their parents’ disappointments by having no problems and making no demands, and they are often unaware of the massive external and internal pressure to pretend that nothing is amiss.

Safer identifies a syndrome she calls the “Caliban Syndrome“—taken from the relationship between Miranda and Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest—and describes four components:

  • premature maturity
  • compulsion to achieve
  • survivor guilt
  • fear of contagion (dread of magically catching the disability)

Being aware of these, of course, can help the “normal” come to terms with his or her role and identity—and possibly figure out whether a better relationship can be achieved with the other sibling.

In 2012 Safer followed up with Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret.

Siblings, says Safer, have their own language of discontent and “grievance collection,” some of which is focused on their parents and some on their own relationship. For example:

  • “You were always Mom’s favorite.”
  • “Mom and Dad are always at your house but they never visit me.”
  • “You never call me.”

The following are Safer’s recommended steps to “Putting a Stop to Sibling Rivalry“:

  • The first step is to think. Who is this person outside his or her relationship with you? What do you like about your sibling? Remember the positive memories. Identify why you think the relationship is worth fixing—if it is.
  • Take the initiative to change. It could be a gesture, like an offer to help with a sick child, a conversation or a letter. Be sincere and don’t ignore the obvious. Say: ‘These conversations between us are painful. I would like to see if we can make our relationship better.’
  • Gestures count. Not everyone is comfortable talking about a strained relationship, especially men. But phone calls, invitations to spend time together, attempts to help should be seen as peace offerings.
  • Consider your sibling’s point of view. Try not to be defensive. What did childhood look like through his or her eyes? ‘You have to be willing to see an unflattering portrait of yourself,’ Dr. Safer says.
  • Tell your sibling what you respect. ‘I love your sense of humor.’ ‘I admire what a good parent you are.’
  • And, finally: ‘It won’t kill you to apologize,’ Dr. Safer says.