A stage director of some accomplishment, Kenneth Lonergan's record as a screenwriter has been, to put it mildly, patchy. First there was the gangster comedy 'Analyze This', a film that misused the gag talents of both Robert De Niro and Lisa Kudrow and missed more targets than a hit man after a bellyful of zambuca. Then came his script for the reworking of 60s cartoon 'The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle'; it too should have been high on laughs but ran out of steam - and De Niro appearances - at the half-way point. Not the best of experiences before writing and directing your debut feature, but that's where form goes out the window because 'You Can Count On Me' is a newfound treasure of American indie cinema.

Set in Scottsville, a small town in upstate New York, the film follows Sammy Prescott (Linney), a single parent who leads a nice if wholly monotonous life with eight-year-old son Rudy (Culkin). Sammy and her brother Terry (Ruffalo) were orphaned at an early age when their parents died in a car accident and this terrible knowledge has led to a fractured relationship in their adult lives. For Terry, Scottsville was reason enough to jump on the first bus out of town and not look back, but for Sammy it holds the safety of both family and work. However, those two constants in her life come under severe pressure with the arrival of two men on Main Street: Terry, fresh from a stint in a Florida jail, and Brian (Broderick), her new nerdy boss who's determined to make every minute a clock-watching nightmare.

While Linney was nominated for an Oscar for her superb performance as the stoical Sammy, there was little hope of her winning in the face of the Julia Roberts/'Erin Brockovich' colossus (a film also about a single mother). Lonergan, however, stood more of a chance. He was nominated for Best Screenplay and was unlucky to lose out to 'Almost Famous'. Unlucky because with the thinnest of plots and smallest of budget he's crafted a deep but gentle study of the ties that bind and the choices that make us who we are. Sammy only wanted what she thought was best for Terry and his decision to leave their hometown (and as an extension reject her) is a source of great disappointment, Terry, meanwhile, sees Sammy as someone who chickened out of the real world and hid behind the familiar faces of Scottsville. There is value in both their views; Lonergan's talent is to shift your allegiances from one to another as the film progresses.

The interaction between Linney and Ruffalo is perfect: full of tears and laughs, hypocrisy and honesty but never playing like it's been through the Hollywood steam clean and never coming across as judgmental (borne out in Lonergan's cameo as an easy going priest who listens to both characters). It's a joy to watch them fight, forgive and fight again, knowing they'll make the same mistakes over and over but ultimately will be better people for them. And while praise has quite rightly been heaped on Linney, she is run to the wire by her male co-star. His turn as the wandering stoner Terry alternates between endearing and exasperating - you're never quite sure whether you'll want to hug or hit him by the end of each scene. He provides much of the film's comedy through his relationship with Sammy's son, and also some of its most poignant moments as he tries to figure out where it all went wrong.

You won't meet a nicer dysfunctional family all year.

Harry Guerin