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John Magary’s “The Mend” opens with a mesmerizing prologue that really serves as a miniature version of the film that will follow. In snippets of scenes, we meet the unkempt Mat (Josh Lucas), who screws his girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owens), then fights with her, then leaves her, then drinks some more, then wanders New York City, etc. It is a series of city moments in the life of an urban wanderer, until Mat ends up at a party at his brother Alan’s house (Stephen Plunkett). Alan and his girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner) haven’t seen Mat in three months, as he’s been off on another one of his “anger spirals.” We all know people like Mat, the kind of guy we only run into at parties or hear stories about from friends. He’s not exactly dangerous, but not exactly trustworthy or reliable. He’s the kind of guy who breaks a bottle in the kitchen and keeps cooking, somehow still surprised when he steps on broken glass a few minutes later.
The first half-hour of “The Mend” consists of the party at which Mat socially reenters his brother’s world. Magary shows great skill, especially for a first-time filmmaker, at capturing the loose, free-form conversations of social gatherings that somehow end up going till dawn. One moment, conversation is serious, the next it’s lighthearted. One moment, Mat is eying the new girl across the living room, the next she’s on his lap. Magary cuts into scenes mid-conversation, allowing us to get to know the most important people in the room—Mat, Alan and Farrah—carefully, and through their interactions with others. We can tell Alan is a bit more forgiving of human faults than Mat, although it’s immediately clear that his relationship with Farrah is strained. He’s overly opinionated (she tells him rather cuttingly, “Getting out an opinion first doesn’t make it OR you more interesting”) and can be self-centered. And yet he’s going to propose to Farrah on a trip to Canada the next day.
Alan and Farrah wake up late from the party, rushing to the airport with only 90 minutes until their plane takes off. They don’t even notice that Mat is still in their apartment. And that’s where he stays for the next few days, even reuniting with his girlfriend and letting her and her kid stay there. They kind of squat in Mat’s space. They’ll deal with the fallout when he returns.
The set-up for “The Mend” might make you think that this is a redemption story. Careless, misanthropic people often learn their lessons in independent cinema, realizing they’ve become the estranged fathers they bemoan or the kind of asshole they would hate to talk to at a party. What’s great about “The Mend” is that it never goes exactly where you expect it to go. Magary is constantly defying moralization, letting his characters breathe and drink and screw and laugh and fight and so on and so on. It’s a character study, not a commentary, and those are fewer and farther between than you might think in an era of Statement Cinema.
As for performance, Josh Lucas gives the best of his career, finding just the right tone for Mat, a guy who couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of him, but he still needs a place to stay. He’s subconsciously selfish, such as when his girl’s ex, who she clearly hates, comes over to pick up her son and he hits him up for career advice. When asked what he does, he brilliantly adds a question mark to “Freelance web design?” Crashing on couches and alcohol poisoning are not yet viable careers. He does a lot of nothing. Wandering through NYC when he feels like getting off the couch. But a lot of actors would have turned Mat into a self-loathing boor. Lucas recognizes that Mat doesn’t hate himself. At least not yet. And Plunkett is fantastic, matching him beat for beat in the way he captures the fact that brotherly love and resentment can exist in the same moment.
When Magary’s dialogue gets a bit too theatrical and self-conscious in the final act, you notice just because of how strong it’s been for the previous 80 minutes. There are a few arguments that don’t quite sound right, the product of a first-time filmmaker honing his style. However, these are minor complaints for a film that announces a major new talent.