D: Cameron Labine / 89m
Cast: Chace Crawford, Tyler Labine, Ben Cotton, Britt Irvin, Christine Willes
Families – the movies love ’em. And the more dysfunctional they are, the more writers and directors want to tell their stories. Hundreds of family-based dramas and comedies (and dramedies) are made each year, and each of them follow a tried and tested and unstinting pattern: the family members are shown to be at odds with each other (often over a misunderstanding that no one fully remembers, or how it all started), rows and disagreements follow, characters remain at odds with each other for the majority of the movie, but by the end, everything has been resolved and everyone loves everyone else again. To quote Mrs Potts, it’s a tale as old as time, and you could be forgiven for thinking that every last wrinkle has been smoothed out in movie makers’ efforts to provide us with yet another example of the genre.
And though it does try to be different, both with its location and its main characters’ need to survive in the harsh environs of the Rockies, Mountain Men doesn’t quite have the wherewithal to stand out from the crowd. And it’s a shame, because while it just misses out on having the necessary substance or the required depth needed to make it more memorable, the movie does have a great deal of understated charm, and though he’s playing the kind of character he’s known for (again), Labine is the movie’s top draw, and it’s worth watching for his performance alone (that and some very impressive Rocky Mountain scenery, stunningly depicted by DoP Catherine Lutes).
It’s a tale of two brothers, Toph (Labine) and Cooper (Crawford). Toph is the eldest, still living in their small hometown, and kind of drifting through life, selling a little weed here and there, and when we first meet him, learning that his girlfriend, Leah (Irvin), is pregnant. Cooper has long fled the family nest. He has a well-paid, high-powered job, a girlfriend who’s a twelve, and apparently, not a care in the world. Back home because their mother is remarrying (everyone believes their father died somewhere in the surrounding mountains, but his body has never been found), Cooper is intent on staying for just a couple of days, but Toph has other ideas. Toph wants them to spend some quality time together, and suggests that they go up to their father’s cabin on the pretext of confronting someone who’s squatting there. At first Cooper declines to go, but when their mother (Willes) suggests he spends time getting to know his new stepfather, Cooper finds Toph’s proposition sounds like the better option.
Once there, though, Cooper makes it clear that he’s in a hurry to leave, and the very next morning. Toph is upset by this, but agrees to return home. However, Toph’s truck won’t start, and Cooper’s solution leads to not only the car going up in flames, but the cabin as well. With only basic winter clothing and minimal supplies, they decide to head for a nearby ranger station. Once there they settle in for the night, intending to leave at first light and reach the road that will lead them back to town. But in amongst the food rations that Toph has brought are some pot cookies, and Cooper eats a couple of them. Later, and while still under their influence, his gazing at the stars in wonder leads to his breaking his leg, and putting the brothers in a difficult, life-threatening situation: namely, how to get back home and how to survive the harsh weather conditions in the meantime…
Making only his second feature after the under-rated Control Alt Delete (2008), Cameron Labine clearly knows a thing or two about fraternal love (yes, he and Tyler are brothers), and it’s equally clear he knows just how fraternal animosities can impair a relationship as well. As is common in these types of comedy dramas, Toph and Cooper are opposites in character, personality and demeanour, with Toph the outwardly goofy, irresponsible brother who’s on the verge of having to “grow up”, while Cooper is the serious one, weighed down by the choices he’s made and the mistakes that have arisen from them (it’s no surprise that both his professional and personal lives have unravelled spectacularly). But Labine isn’t interested entirely in telling a commonplace tale of sibling misunderstanding or rivalry, and instead uses Cooper’s injury to remind the brothers of just how important their relationship is to both of them. He also makes Toph the dependable one, solving each problem that arises once Cooper is incapacitated, and helping his suffering brother in more ways than one.
And there’s much for Toph to deal with, as Labine garlands Cooper’s problems with hints of mental illness and self-loathing, and raises issues surrounding the death of their father that takes the material into much darker territory than expected. But even then, Labine holds back from exploring this idea more fully, almost as if he’s remembered the movie is also a comedy and he needs to strike a balance. It’s this that holds the movie back from achieving its full potential as a drama, and keeps it from being as effective as it could be. That said, the humour is fresh and appealing, and arises out of the characters and not just their situation (one jump cut is guaranteed to make viewers laugh by itself, though). Along the way, Labine also ensures that the brothers’ predicament remains credible, as well as the solutions that Toph comes up with, and this makes the movie more engaging than it might appear from its basic premise. The brothers’ journey, both physical and emotional, ends up being beneficial for both of them, and though this isn’t entirely surprising, Labine does more than enough to make tagging along with them a surprising and enjoyable experience.
Rating: 7/10 – modest in both scope and ambition, and hindered somewhat by being so, Mountain Men is nevertheless the kind of movie that sneaks up on the viewer and proves pleasantly entertaining; having Crawford and Labine on board is a plus, and so is the beauitiful scenery, but if anything truly resonates, it’s the way in which Labine deftly examines the mutual bond of love and affection that unites these brothers no matter how well or how badly either of them (think they) are doing.