Writer-director John Magary’s debut feature, The Mend, begins with scenes of domestic discord as brothers Mat (Josh Lucas) and Alan (Stephen Plunkett) each engage their significant others in alternately vague and explicit spats. After some boisterous afternoon delight with girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen), Mat invites her rage off-screen before she kicks him out of her apartment on-screen. Alan, on the other hand, has a brief post-screw tête-à-tête with his own best gal, Farrah (Mickey Sumner), about the unfortunate trajectory of his orgasm. But trouble in paradise has to wait: They’re slap-dab in media res, hosting a party to celebrate the debut of her avant garde dance performance—a party which Mat then crashes.
He isn’t invited. He isn’t shown in. He simply appears, a roughshod, gruff specter taking up real estate on the couch and absorbing beer. When Alan, Farrah and a cadre of their friends join him, the discussion sets the stage for The Mend’s familial and romantic conflicts by posing a single question: “Come on, who likes to feel bad?” Alan throws this zinger out there, a defensive countermeasure after he’s caught reciting lines from a negative review of Farrah’s show that he read online. (Other people read the Internet too. Imagine that.) You probably won’t have an answer to the query right away. By the time the film ends, though, you’ll know precisely where you fall on the misery spectrum, which, in turn, will decide just how well you cotton to Magary’s tale of unresolved familial beefs.
The Mend’s loosely strung plot dips into familiar narrative wells: Two white guys with a prickly personal relationship, historical daddy issues, tenuous love lives and general existential angst wind up on a collision course with Catharsis™. If you scour the annals of modern indie cinema and you don’t stumble upon that exact same blueprint a dozen times over, you’re not looking hard enough. But Magary does more with The Mend’s common elements by doing less. Remarkably, he’s able to distill originality from tropes. He doesn’t explain, he insinuates, implies, suggests. We never meet Mat’s and Alan’s dear old dad; We just hear about the guy, straight from the siblings’ mouths, as well as from Earl (Austin Pendleton), an old family friend who shows up at the story-setting party with anecdotes about threesomes, telling us all we need to know about the sort of dad the boys grew up with.
The Mend is as interesting for the things it leaves unsaid as for the things it does say, though the script contains so much sharp dialogue, we may be apt to forget about the tensions bubbling beneath the surface. The film is often hilarious, though when we laugh we’re laughing in spite of ourselves—in particular when it comes to Mat: He’s a force of nature first and a character second. Lucas has free reign to be the best unapologetic asshole he can be, the type who breaks a glass and would rather step on the shards than reach for a goddamn broom. Throughout The Mend, Mat tosses beer in a woman’s face, steals a walkie talkie from a hapless P.A., pisses on whatever he pleases—public parks, kitchen sinks, his relationships, all accepted definitions of propriety—and moves into Alan’s apartment unannounced.
Mat makes his relocational giddyup the morning after the first act’s pivotal shindig, in which Alan and Farrah have left for a planned vacation to Quebec, where Alan plans to propose. So Mat settles in, as he has nowhere else to go (and even if he did, he’s the social equivalent of herpes). When Alan comes home days, rather than weeks, after departing, everybody can do the math. All that remains in The Mend post-heartbreak is, well, more heartbreak, though Magary makes sure that Alan’s emotions aren’t the only elements to take a beating. The Mend is about as unsparing as misanthropic family dramas can be, though Magary blends malcontent with a level of honesty that other films of its make (see: 2014’s Listen Up Philip) lack.
Magary has his acrimony and eats it, too, in other words, but as much as he entertains us through comic hostility, his movie’s prevailing tone suggests deep and abiding fondness for his leads. Mat might be a reckless man-child—unlike similar screen characters caught in perpetual arrested development, he’s actually capable of endangering people around him—and Alan, as played by the wonderful and underrated Plunkett, might be a sad sack with rage issues, but Magary wants us to observe, and appreciate, their humanity. Better than that, he’s economic enough that we don’t have to suffer through excess backstory and exposition to accrue any meaning. Details largely stay in the margins, where they belong. The Mend draws so much from real, raw life, we don’t need specifics—Magary knows we can sniff them out ourselves through personal experience.
Maybe your childhood, teenhood and adulthood don’t look quite as jagged in the rearview as they do in The Mend. But you’re sure to recognize bits and pieces of reality in both Alan’s post-break-up grieving process and in Mat’s search for, well, whatever the hell it is Mat is searching for. (Maturity? Grown-up love? Alcoholic beverages? A chance to be a father? A place to drain the lizard?) The Mend is a refreshingly genuine film, fueled by infectious energy and the coarsest of humor. Saying anything more might give too much away, though frankly, describing the film’s incongruous, off-tempo, improvisational groove poses a daunting but welcome challenge even after two viewings.
Director: John Magary
Writer: John Magary
Starring: Josh Lucas, Stephen Plunkett, Mickey Sumner, Lucy Owen, Austin Pendleton
Release Date: August 21, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.