Ellis is a 14-year-old boy who is sweet on a girl from school, and he's imagining all the possibilities that love holds for him if only she will promise to be his girlfriend.
Ah, first love and the world of the dreamer.
This Arkansas youth, living in a ramshackle houseboat attached to the banks of a body of water that runs into the Mississippi River, has his mind set on romantic concepts such as promises and bonds, love for a lifetime and finding that "one and only" mate.
This would explain why he's upset with his mother and father's dissolving marriage ("You can't trust love, Ellis, it will run out on you," the man tells the boy). This is why Ellis can find a kindred spirit in the form of a fugitive from justice, a man whom the teen discovers in hiding, talking about his sweetheart with whom he longs to reunite.
"She's like a dream you don't want to wake up from," purrs Mud, the dreamer-on-the-run played by Matthew McConaughey, who almost can make anyone believe they should help him out of this jam despite the dangers.
Mud is the epitome of the doomed lover, but to a teen like Ellis, the situation is as simple as this: My dad let his chance at love die, while Mud acts out of true love, and so do I.
This new feature from writer-director Jeff Nichols is on its face an adventure tale: two teen boys believe they have found a cool island treehouse when they discover a boat that long-ago flood waters left high in the limbs of a tree--only to find Mud living inside.
A trade is proposed: Boys, I'll give you the boat if you ferry over food to me, the fugitive says.
They even spit-handshake to seal the deal, one of many regional-flavored moments that make this movie seem like a "Stand By Me" tale that gets mixed up with a criminal element a la "A Perfect World," the Kevin Costner-Clint Eastwood movie.
"Mud" even has some of the idealism of those films, and it is much more inclined to that type of sentiment than Nichols' powerful last film "Take Shelter," which dealt with no less than one man's visions of madness and apocalypse.
The young actors create wonderfully sympathetic characters, from the perspective that their mistakes in love and life are more acceptable and innocent than the actions of the adults who range from immature to cold-hearted.
But the youths also dominate the film's storyline with their quality acting. As Ellis, Tye Sheridan delivers a performance that is naturalistic to the point he seems at home with this forlorn, intelligent, tough character who's willing to fight, literally, for love.
The same can be said of Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, Ellis' best bud and fellow pilot of their riverboat and experienced dirt-bike rider, and of Bonnie Sturdivant as May Pearl, who portrays the eye of Ellis' affection as a teen girl who's already well-aware of her power to prove alluring to males.
These sublime performances are in stark contrast to those of Reese Witherspoon as Juniper, Mud's longtime love, which is a distraction throughout because of her presence.
Then there's the number of heavies present in the film (bounty hunter types hired to track and kill Mud), with "Walking Tall" 's Joe Don Baker leading the way in an ultra-conventional revenge subplot that threatens to kill the soulful poetry Nichols has otherwise created.
It's a bit like an indie film being invaded by a Sam Peckinpah shootout, and it's a weird fit.
But Nichols keeps his ship sailing these Arkansas waters smoothly for the most part, thanks to a thoughtful storyline, talented child actors and McConaughey, who keeps taking chances with his acting.
Mud is kooky, gritty, superstitious, delusional and doomed, and McConaughey's devilish nature makes "Mud" a movie of just as many dimensions.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking)
Length: 130 minutes
Rating: 3 stars
Rock island, IL Details
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