Typically, you’ll know a low-budget film when you see one. Most scenes will take place in interior spaces, most exteriors will be landscapes peopled only by main and supporting cast; extras will be in limited supply unless they’re unpaid; under-fives are either otherworldly or badly-acted novelties; and some acting will be improvisational and accompanied by the editing. That’s all very well in The Mend, John Magary’s feature-length debut, except those qualities appear less consequential and more purposely accentuated (also, there’s a pretty good under-five about a half-hour in). The film actually makes an effort to incorporate its very limits into its tools of narrative development. This among many things could cue us into how much of this is stylistically mixed up and how much is uncanny experimentation. That we don’t follow Alan (Stephen Plunkett) and Farrah (Mickey Sumner) out of Manhattan after the lengthy first act as they rush to make a vacation flight to Canada—where Alan plans to propose—doesn’t just indicate this film didn’t have the budget to shoot on location at the airport, but also tells something about the urban setting’s subtle yet powerful narrative role, stronger here than in that half of NYC native Woody Allen’s films and maybe even stronger than John Cassavete’s Shadows, and perhaps on par with Jules Dassin’s The Naked City; unlike in any of those films, on the other hand, here that role is a chiefly antagonistic one: we are stuck in, bound to, and antagonized by the urban space of Manhattan—geographically, socially, economically, technologically, maybe even morally speaking—and leaving it becomes an act of pure escape.
We instead cut back to Alan’s apartment, where, in the midst of the party they had last night, his alienated brother Mat (Josh Lucas) had snuck in and covertly fallen asleep after his girlfriend and divorced single mom Andrea (Lucy Owen) kicked him out of her apartment. With a mixture of wonder and groggy, calloused boredom, he briefly explores the neighborhood before retreating indoors and inviting Andrea and her child Ronnie (Cory Nichols) over. When Alan silently and unexpectedly returns a few days later, alone and dejected, he unceremoniously welcomes them with his desire for company, but this becomes complicated as all become aware of each other’s toxic and unreconciled relationships with one another. Exteriors become escapist outings of their own as they become the setting for bleak revelation or fantastical, stratospheric expeditioneering, while interiors, making up the majority of the scenes, become the spaces of arguments.
The Mend indicates by its title that its thematic forefront is struggle, and struggles there are, of all varieties and on all levels. But more directly, it signifies what actually parallels these many conflicts with one another: this titular ‘mend’ is less about putting one’s life back together and more about how these people have coped and are still coping with a lack of resolution in their lives. It’s how they can have relationships that are simultaneously contentious and monotonous. This gets further emphasized by the plot’s vignette-like structure in which overall build-up is constituted primarily by vivid or symbolic images like a shot of bleeding palms or their TV turning on and off due to recurring power outages. Dialogue contributes only to the scene, and every pivotal argument and confession feels futile and day-to-day. Magary’s slow pacing thus takes especially after Cassavetes, while the mood does too, but with touches of Allen with his use of symbolism as well as a playlist-like soundtrack, first to create humor and later to invoke a more disquieting atmosphere.
Mat, considered by all to be the bad guy, including himself, is simply the most fatalistic and perhaps most aware of this trend of relationship drama. Alan, the polar opposite (and perhaps his name is a nod to Woody), is insecure and invests emotional effort into meaningless causes, yet is no exception to the rule; Stephen Plunkett adds more colour and variety to the range of moods Alan goes through to match the charisma Josh Lucas brings to every one of Mat’s mumbled or slurred lines. Something dynamic definitely happens with how the two bounce off one another, both on and off paper. Magary even orchestrates their individual narratives in such a way that it becomes almost impossible to designate just one of them as the protagonist. Just in the opening eight minutes, we are split between their two storylines that are completely separate worlds—Mat’s expulsion from Andrea’s apartment and a montage of him roughing the streets, bars and cafes that culminates in him crawling on an empty subway platform with a strained yet dazed expression cuts to black before moving onto Alan and Farrah discussing ejaculation etiquette in intercourse as they pack bags during a party—and yet suddenly get woven together. Even then, it’s not until past the 20-minute mark, as they start objecting to old-timer hippie Earl (Austin Pendleton, in a great supporting role) telling an unsavoury story about himself and their father, do we realise that somehow, these two are related. They are frustratingly different yet tied together.
One of the few things that bring this down from any greatness is a simple lack of style or focus. Magary and cinematographer Chris Teague have lots of fun with camera movement and zooming close-ups in their tight-packed interiors, but this makes editor Joseph Krings’s job all the more difficult and the result more disorienting, less in any immersive sense that the film’s themes might suggest and more in an amateur one. Another thing is how supporting roles don’t get enough screen time or lines; they’re well-written, yet so easily get written out of the bulk of the story that you wonder either why they were there in the first place or why we don’t give Mat and Alan a break and follow them for 10 minutes or more. Women characters especially are constantly pulled into and pushed out of the narrative by its limited male scope, so much so that when Alan has to venture out to Chinatown to help Earl with something, he’s almost seen as feminized.
Anyone who’s a fan of Cassavetes or Allen can definitely see The Mend and get some kick out of it. In many ways, it’s an odd homage on how those two revolutionized the American independent film and New York relationship drama, while in other ways it’s bent on turning the whole formula on its head. It doesn’t quite succeed at the latter, but the former is revelatory and at times captivating in what it reveals about its own conventions.