How You Can Count on Me Brought My Family Back Together

Ryan Spahn on how Kenneth Lonergan's classic debut feature forever changed the lives of him and his sisters.

I have two sisters. Both older. When we were younger, our family fell apart. During that time, the eldest of the siblings, Angela, swooped in as a temporary “parent” because Mom was too sad to get out of bed and Dad had moved on to another woman. Our lives had gone from blissful to devastating. Through those years, I grew closer to my middle sister, Nicole, because Angela was reconciling her newfound responsibility by asserting independence at every turn. This resulted in Nicole and me often being left alone. Physically and emotionally.

“You’re abandoning me!” Nicole screamed, as I packed my bags for boarding school.

“I have to leave. I’m sorry,” I explained, as I loaded my life into my father’s company car.

Ryan Spahn’s sisters, Nicole and Angela.

At 15, I had decided to move away because a) my homelife was riddled with traumas and b) I was learning quickly that being gay at my public school – and in my house – was not a welcomed quirk. If I didn’t get out, and get out fast, I probably would not survive. I found an arts boarding school upstate, auditioned, got in, self-funded the tuition, and sent myself hundreds of miles away.

To be fair, Nicole’s overwhelming sadness over my abandoning her wasn’t entirely due to my sudden switching of schools. That seed was planted back in middle school when a rumor circulated that “all the girls made out with Ryan at Joanna’s birthday party on Friday night, so that means Ryan musta made out with his sister, Nicole, too!”

This was horrifying and baseless. We never recovered.

During my time at boarding school, Nicole and I would write letters to each other, and I’d call her late at night from my dorm room payphone. I’d try to see Angela as much as I could during her years at Michigan State, but there were restrictions with regards to my being allowed to leave campus.

Overall, the siblings simply drifted apart.

Ryan Spahn around the time he moved to Los Angeles.

In summer of 1998, I graduated from the acting program at Interlochen Arts Academy. Within months, I packed my Pontiac Grand AM, said goodbye to my sisters, and moved thousands of miles from Detroit to Los Angeles. I had just turned 18. My intention was to be an actor, but I knew, even then, that I would never be returning home. No matter what happened.

During my first six months in Hollywood, I had a fabulous roommate named Meghan, but I quickly signed my own lease for a studio apartment nestled in the cutest of villages directly across from an iconic independent movie theatre, the Los Feliz 3. It was dreamy. I had never imagined having such proximity to cinema, and I planned to see everything.

“One ticket to You Can Count on Me,” I said to the over-it box office clerk in the fall of 2000.

Having grown up educated by my Entertainment Weekly, I had to let my subscription lapse in order to save money. I literally knew nothing about You Can Count on Me. Not its writer, not its stars, not its plot. I was just smitten by its beige movie poster of two thirty-somethings hugging, and I was gaga for its Sundance Film Festival laurel.

I purchased a small popcorn and a Diet Coke, and cozied into my matinee. I’d often go to the movies alone. Partly because I didn’t want to be responsible for somebody else’s opinions, but mostly because I had yet to make any new friends. I was two years into life as a young adult – yet to turn 21 – and because I didn’t attend university, meaningful connections were few and far between.

The lights dimmed, the piano music started, and I immediately regretted not grabbing napkins to avoid rubbing the popcorn butter into my now suddenly teary eyes. You Can Count on Me was a love letter to siblings.

Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo and Rory Culkin in You Can Count on Me.

After losing her parents in a car accident, a now-adult single mom, Sammy (Laura Linney, in an Oscar-nominated performance), has done her best to live a simple, quiet life in her hometown. That life is turned upside down when her rarely seen younger brother, Terry (played by the wondrous Mark Ruffalo), returns home, unannounced. Sammy finds out quickly that part of why she hasn’t heard from Terry is because he has spent some time in jail. Frustrated and worried, Sammy is scared that Terry’s arrival will be a bad influence on her young son, Rudy (played by the adorable Rory Culkin). But she loves her brother. And misses him. After all, they’re all the family either of them have. Terry decides to stay in town for a while. He moves in with his sister, and as Rudy and Terry grow closer, Sammy becomes deeply affected by their connection. Their blossoming friendship brightens Sammy’s life and allows her to finally let loose; thus she begins an illicit affair with her milquetoast boss, Brian (effortlessly played by Matthew Broderick). The more assured Sammy becomes that Terry is home for good, the more restless Terry feels about this responsibility. He’s never lived anywhere very long, and he only came home to borrow money because he’s “got this girl … and, um, she’s kinda in a bad situation.” Eventually, Terry pulls the plug on this lifestyle, and, at the end of the film, the two orphaned siblings share one of the most beautifully written conversations as they sit at a bus station, waiting for Terry to walk out of Sammy’s life … possibly forever.

I didn’t know what to do. I was flooded with memories. Of my sisters. Of the time we lost because of our parents’ divorce. I left the Los Feliz 3, stepped out onto the sunny sidewalk, and began to uncontrollably cry. The pain of my parents’ separation, the sadness over what that did to me and my sisters, and the reality that life was this series of missteps came crashing into my heart. The lead actress – Laura Linney – had perfectly captured the complicated pain of profound loss and how that loss can make it impossible for siblings to reconcile much of anything. She channeled my sisters. Her performance reminded me that, if a relationship is going to work, it takes two. Sammy was desperate to fix things, but she still needed Terry to meet her halfway.

Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me.

When I got home to my studio apartment that afternoon, I collected myself, took a few deep breaths, and picked up my landline.

“Hey, Angela. Hey, Nicole … it’s Ryan.”

On a whim, I invited them to come to L.A. I would be turning 21 that summer, and I was hoping they’d share this milestone with me.

Silence. A few deep breaths.


They bought airline tickets, flew cross-country, and everything changed.

Ryan Spahn is an actor, filmmaker and writer. He has been published by Rotten Tomatoes, Metro Weekly, USA Today, IntoMore, and American Theatre Magazine. As an actor, he can be seen in American Horror Story, Succession, The Bite, Chicago P.D., and Modern Love. Ryan is a graduate of Juilliard and is based in New York City. Go here for more info.