Release Date: April 26, 2013 (Limited)
Director: Jeff Nichols
MPAA Rating: PG-13
When thinking about “coming of age” films the first ones that come to mind might be a John Hughes film or Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. Perhaps American Pie is more to your liking. Not to be forgotten there’s Stoker, The Apu Trilogy, City of God, Running on Empty, The Squid and the Whale and Flirting, just to name a few. The “coming of age” genre typically follows young protagonists, usually teenagers, as they make that awkward transition from puberty to adulthood. Some of the topics that these films explore include sexual confusion, the loss of innocence and the burden of responsibility. Jeff Nichols latest film isn’t just a “coming of age” film but is also a deliberately paced Southern Gothic mystery/adventure that will stay with you after the lights come on in the theater.
Fourteen-year-old Ellis and Neckbone set off for an island in the midst of the Mississippi River where Neckbone had discovered a boat stuck in a tree. It is a striking and peculiar sight but it certainly looks like the ideal tree house. While exploring there newly found fortress they discover someone has already been there and appears to be living in their boat. While preparing to depart the island they come across a drifter on the beach. They discover that this charming and mysterious man is the one living in their boat. After hearing his story Neckbone is a bit suspicious but Ellis is intrigued and together they decide to help this interesting individual. This meeting on the beach sets in motion a course of events that will entwine not only their lives but the lives of the ones they love.
Nichols tells his story at a leisurely Southern-like pace and only reveals slivers of information as the film moves along. With every newly revealed element he still leaves room for suspicion. The seeds of doubt he has planted benefits the tension because you are never sure about who this guy is and just what could happen to these two boys. On the surface he is a likable and charming guy but you never really know what he’s up to even after you think you know. He has written some memorable characters in a story that many have claimed to be reminiscent of Mark Twin. Every character has an arc that doesn’t seem superfluous to the story. He paints a splendid picture of river life that is engaging and fascinating. More importantly he was able to direct two great performances from young actors which includes one in his first feature film.
The acting in this film is quite impressive especially from young Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone, respectively. The chemistry they have sells the fact that these two are best friends and they behave just like any typical teenage boy. They not only talk about girls but are also smart and aware of the world around them. The fact that one of them proves to be the cautious one is quite refreshing. Their banter is entertaining, poignant and at times funny. Matthew McConaughey is fantastic as the title character, Mud. It can be argued that he appears to be playing himself but there are many layers to this character. Nichols said that he wrote this part for him and thankfully he got him because he “is” Mud. The three of them together effectively portray this partnership that develops into a friendship. The film also features excellent work from a solid supporting cast, which includes Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Ray McKinnon and Paul Sparks.
Mud is a well-written and directed Southern mystery that keeps you engaged to the very end. It features many memorable characters that are brought to life by some fine acting by a great ensemble. There is a section of the film where the tone shifts but it felt necessary and was handled properly to the point where it didn’t take much away from the overall experience. Seeing it is like having a mud bath. At first you get dirty but once it comes off it’s quite refreshing.