In his new film, ‘Mud’, Jeff Nichols (director of ‘Take Shelter‘) brings us a coming-of-age story about two best friends in the South who bond with a homeless fugitive. With amazing performances and a great script, this tiny tale of love, confidence and second chances might just find a big audience through positive word-of-mouth.
The story centers around Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a 14-year-old boy who lives with his unhappy parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) on a houseboat in the deep South. His only friend is Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), a boy his age who lives in neighboring houseboat with his free-spirited uncle (Michael Shannon). The two boys tend to stick around the lake they live by rather than go into town where there’s really nothing to do. When Ellis and Neckbone take a small boat out to fish and adventure, they come across a deserted island in the middle of the Mississippi River and find a dirty, gritty-looking guy who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
Mud has taken shelter in an old run-down boat stuck high in a tree. Quickly, he tells the two boys that he killed a man in an altercation over his long-lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Despite this knowledge, the two boys decide to help Mud by bringing him food and supplies every day. In return, Mud will let the boys have the boat once he’s reunited with Juniper, who is staying in a motel in town. In order to do this, Mud tells the boys that they must steal a motor for the boat. Meanwhile, a gang of bounty hunters arrive in this small town, the leader of which was killed by Mud.
The film has some influences from old American literature, particularly stories that take place in the South. One is ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, which Nichols has said heavily influenced him. Another angle Nichols conveys is that every relationship in the film is strained and has serious flaws. Our one constant is Ellis, who wants his parents to stay together and wants to help Mud, even if that means committing a crime. Nobody else seems to keep thing together.
Tye Sheridan does an amazing job as Ellis. This is his second film (the first being Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’). Although he doesn’t talk much, his mannerisms and eyes tell his story as he figures out important life lessons for himself. His confidence and courage attract older high school girls and lead Ellis to stand up for himself against older guys. All of the disappointment and anger that comes through the characters lead up to a bloody climax that might be a tad bit clichéd, but never oversteps the mark.
McConaughey gives a stellar performance as an outlaw who wants a second chance and just wants to be with the one he loves, even if she’s holding back. His mystique, dirtiness and even his chipped tooth all add to part of his charm, which might garner him an acting award in the future. Witherspoon takes a step away from her romantic comedies to play a tramp who’s beaten and tossed around through her life and still can’t get it together. Shannon is barely in the film, but provides some comical moments as he tries to teach life lessons to his nephew and Ellis. Sam Shepard also has a small cameo with a few surprises up his sleeve.
‘Mud’ is by far my favorite coming-of-age film of the last couple of years. My advice is to skip a big blockbuster movie weekend this summer and check out this tale of second chances. You’ll leave the theater satisfied, even if you feel a bit dirty afterwards.