Producers: Kelly McKendry, Scott MacLeod, Carl Effenson, Stephen Camelio and Joshua Caldwell Director: Joshua Caldwell Screenplay: Stephen Camelio Cast: Sinqua Walls, Brian Cox, Perry Mattfeld, Chris Galust, Patricia Heaton, Wes Studi and Michaela Sasner Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
The potential therapeutic benefits of fly-fishing for military veterans (and, presumably, others) suffering from PTSD are dramatized in this earnest but manipulative film from Stephen Camelio and Joshua Caldwell. “Mending the Line” is reminiscent of the blandly well-intentioned fare that was once a staple of network television like the Hallmark Hall of Fame, but it’s elevated to some extent by strong lead performances from Sinqua Walls and Brian Cox.
Walls plays John Colter, a wounded Marine traumatized by a botched mission in Afghanistan; he blames himself for the deaths of many in his squad. He’s received treatment elsewhere in the VA system, but has arrived at a medical facility in Montana, whose head Dr. Burke (Patricia Heaton) will, he hopes, sanction his return to active duty. After watching how volatile he can be, she suggests that he might benefit from going fly-fishing with another of her patients, Ike Fletcher (Cox), a grizzled Vietnam vet who’s been suffering from blackouts, which she fears could be dangerous if he has one while out fishing alone. Colter isn’t exactly enthused of the idea, but goes to visit Fletcher at his cabin.
Cantankerous Ike is no more enthusiastic at the thought of teaching a newbie the secrets of a sport that, from the content of his home, he takes very seriously, and gives Colter a quick brush-off. But taking the advice of the old man’s close, and perhaps only, friend Harrison (Wes Studi), Colter decides to do some homework on fly fishing and approaches local librarian Lucy (Perry Mattfeld) for some books on the subject. But beset by her own emotional problems—she’s still grieving the loss of her fiancé in a motorcycle crash, and his mother (Michaela Sasner), obsessed with keeping her son’s memory alive, won’t let her move on—Lucy initially brushes him off, too. She soon relents, however, and the next time Colter approaches Ike, he’s not unprepared.
Thus begins what might be called the “Karate Kid” part of the film, in which Fletcher assigns the Marine mundane tasks designed, he’ll eventually explains, to teach him the most valuable lesson in fly-fishing—no, not patience, but humility. Then they’re off to Fletcher’s favorite fishing spot, and Colter is taught to “mend the line”—manipulating the line after the throw to enhance the possibility of attracting the fish to the lure. John is surprised that Ike always releases a caught fish back into the water, saying his military experience persuaded him never to kill again. That’s a sign of the trauma he too suffered; like Colter he first turned to alcohol to dampen his guilt, until he discovered the serenity fly-fishing brought him. It’s also an indication that he still needs some sort of closure as much as John and Lucy do.
Things come to a head for all of them in the film’s last act, which becomes a sort of redemption tale three times over. It would be untrue to say that the twists avoid cloyingness and contrivance, including a good deal of backsliding on Colter’s part, but if Walls, Cox and Mattfeld can’t make them all convincing, they at least make them go down relatively painlessly; Cox even brings conviction to some awfully obvious monologues. A coda also allows for Colter to become a teacher of sorts, bringing the joys of the sport he’s mastered to others—not just Lucy, but other vets, like the dejected Kovacs (Chris Galust).
There’s some lovely Montana scenery in “Mending the Line”—a title, of course, intended to convey a double meaning–and cinematographer Eva M. Cohen makes the most of it in her widescreen images. Elsewhere her work is proficient but unremarkable, as is that of production designer Freddy Waff. Will Torbett’s editing tends toward the sluggish, as does Caldwell’s direction—the film demands considerable patience—and Bill Brown’s score is positively syrupy. (One sighs in relief when it goes silent.)
But the ensemble helps one get over the maudlin parts. Heaton is rather wasted and Sasner overacts, but Studi brings some whimsical humor to Harrison. And while Mattfeld can be stiff, Walls manages to put over even the sequence in which a visit to a buzzy bar brings on flashbacks to Afghanistan and sends him back to the bottle.
But it’s Cox who makes the decidedly calculating and predictable movie as watchable as it is. Stardom has come late to the actor, who has long been reliable in supporting character roles as well as stunning in a few lead ones (like Michael Cuesta’s “L.I.E.,” which also provided Paul Dano with his first opportunity to shine), but better late than never. He makes Ike Fletcher, for all his orneriness, a character you want to spend some time with, especially when he’s casting his line—and then mending it.