The Mend: SXSW Review

Messy and emotionally awkward, in a good way.

Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett play brothers reconnecting over a couple of strange days.

AUSTIN– A convincing and refreshingly indirect examination of handed-down emotional flaws, John Magary's The Mend observes the latest in a lifelong series of fights and reunions between two brothers. As the prodigal who dips in and out of his settled sibling's life unpredictably, Josh Lucas offers one of his strongest performances to date; the comparably unknown Stephen Plunkett, though not the film's main focus, makes an excellent foil. Just funny enough to get viewers through some uncomfortable patches, it's a debut that should hold its own in an art house run and generate interest in the writer-director.

Both characters are introduced via arguments with women -- Mat (Lucas), is being violently kicked out of an apartment by girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen); Alan (Plunkett) is preparing to host a party while trying to recover from a sexual maneuver his girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner) didn't appreciate. Mat causes concern by showing up to the party uninvited, having not seen Alan and Farrah in three months.

Mat fares as well at the get-together as a practically homeless, emotionally prickly man can expect to; when his brother and Farrah rush off the next morning to catch a plane (they're taking a vacation on which Alan is expected to propose), they don't realize he's sleeping the night off on their couch.

Mat makes their house his own, taking in guests when it suits him; Andrea and her son come to stay when their building is evacuated for bedbugs. When Alan returns early, and alone (the trip went badly), he's so demoralized he becomes one with the squatters.

Almost play-like in its creation of a self-contained emotional environment, but not uncinematic, the film then observes as the three rootless adults bide time together and attempt to survive the sudden eruptions of emotion their world entails. The air is thick with unsettled grudges and impending confrontation, an edgy vibe enhanced by the string section performing Judd Greenstein and Michi Wiancko's modernist score.

From early on, the brothers exhibit a discomfort with the subject of their father. He's barely mentioned, except by the colorful uncle (or uncle-like character) played by Austin Pendleton, and one immediately deduces that these two men, incomplete in different ways, owe their difficulties in life largely to the old man. Happily, Magary never feels the need to explain with a third-act "Dad was a jerk" speech; his most direct comment on the issue is revealing in its startling brevity.

With one or two exceptions, Magary constructs his only-slightly stylized world without drawing attention to himself: Here, televisions play The Three Stooges and 1930s cartoons instead of modern sitcoms; a character can offhandedly admit to a tantrum by saying "I had a little Susan-left-Xanadu moment" and expect others to understand. These peculiarities give comfort in a film that willfully keeps us at bay, refusing to make its protagonists more accessible than they are or to offer prepackaged explanations for their antisocial behavior. Though its title suggests closure and its final note is an optimistic one, this family's "mend" is clearly a work in progress.

Production company: Moxie Pictures

Cast: Josh Lucas, Stephen Plunkett, Lucy Owen, Mickey Sumner, Cory Nichols, Austin Pendleton

Director-screenwriter: John Magary

Producers: Myna Joseph, Michael Prall

Executive producers: Robert Fernandez, Dan Levinson, Michael Hacker, Susannah Hacker

Director of photography: Chris Teague

Production designer-costume designer: Markus Kirschner

Music: Judd Greenstein, Michi Wiancko

Editor: Joseph Krings

Sales: Traction Media

No MPAA rating, 111 minutes