May 13, 2013 -- I don't care for most “coming-of-age” films, like “Stand By Me” or “Summer of 42”. You know, that gauzy, sepia-toned crap full of nostalgia, heartbreak, loss of innocence, sudden tragedy, discovering sexuality, etc. But every once in a while a good one comes along, like “The Bridge to Terabithia” or “The Mighty” and you find that the genre can sometimes rise above the muck of gross sentimentality, cynicism and despair.
“Mud” is a standout film in this genre mainly because of its central character, one tough, warm-hearted, stubborn little kid who believes in the power of love, above all else, and an adult who should know better, but doesn't. Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan of “The Tree of Life”) shows his spunk as a 14 year-old, who punches out a senior who is harassing a girl, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). He gets a date with her, but makes the mistake of thinking she will accept him openly as her boyfriend in front of her peers.
One day the intrepid Ellis, along with his pal, Neckbone (played by Jacob Lofland) explore an island in the Mississippi River where a flood has stranded a boat high in the trees. They discover that a man named Mud (played by Matthew McConnaughey of “The Lincoln Lawyer”) has been living on the island, hiding out. Mud tells the boys he is waiting to meet up with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon of “Walk the Line”). Neckbone is very skeptical of the story and wants nothing to do with Mud, but Ellis is determined to help this man because of his grandly romantic nature.
Ellis is a true river rat. He loves living in a boat along the river in Arkansas with his parents. He helps his father (Ray McKinnon of “The Blind Side”) catch and sell fish. But his mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson of “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) who owns the boat, doesn't like this life. She plans to move into town and get a divorce. Their home, the houseboat, will be removed by the government, probably to comply with some environmental regulations. Ellis is devastated, but he continues to help Mud, believing that his love is true, and that Mud and Juniper belong together. The more his family breaks apart, the more Ellis is determined to see that Mud and Juniper are united.
Eventually, Ellis and Neckbone discover that Mud has killed a man and that he is wanted by police. This does not deter Ellis, who believes Mud killed the man because of his love for juniper and that the murder victim deserved to die. But police are the least of Mud's problems. Bounty hunters are after him. The murder victim's relatives, led by a brother and father, don't want Mud to stand trial. They want him dead, and are determined to get him by any means necessary. Ellis and his family find themselves in the middle of a war when these two sides have their final, violent confrontation.
Another player in this drama is a mysterious neighbor, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard of “Safe House”). Mud calls Tom an assassin, a CIA sharpshooter, and the closest thing to a father he ever had. Tom tells Ellis that all of Mud's problems are rooted in his blind love for Juniper, who is no good for him. Tom also says that Juniper doesn't really love Mud. Ellis will eventually discover the truth about Mud, Juniper and Tom before this story is over. The truth, as usual, is more complicated that it first appears to be.
Mud and Ellis are very similar characters. Despite their age differences, both of them have a lot of growing up to do. In each of them, there is a romantic resistance to reality. Under the extreme conditions of the story, both of these characters have to grow up and strike a new balance between a romantic view of the world and a realistic view. Romantic relationships fail. Marriages fall apart. These are difficult facts to reconcile with romanticism, but both Mud and Ellis are forced to deal with these painful realities. The performances by McConnaughey, Tye Sheridan and the supporting cast are very powerful, aided by a fine script by writer-director Jeff Nichols.
Now I suppose some people won't like this movie because it isn't depressing enough. Some people like movies that emphasize the worst in human behavior, movies which wallow in the warm mud of evil, duplicity, tragedy and hopelessness. This one strikes a nice balance. It isn't romantic or rosy, but evil doesn't get top billing, either. Both the evil characters and the romantic characters are given shades of gray. They both have very understandable motives for their actions. The ending wasn't very believable, but I found it very satisfying. This is one of the best movies of the year so far. It rates a B+.
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