In every adolescent's young life there is that pivotal moment which signals the end of innocence and marks the beginning of maturity. For "The Goonies," it was the search for One-Eyed Willie's gold; for the "Stand By Me" kids, it was the summer they discovered that dead body; for me, it was my bar mitzvah. For Ellis and Neckbone, it is the discovery of "Mud." Now, we're not talking about the thick mixture of earth and water, but rather the mysterious tree-dweller played by Matthew McConaughey in this new film from writer/director Jeff Nichols.
The rite of passage into manhood comes calling one lazy afternoon when Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) artlessly seek to investigate an abandoned boat that, curiously, got caught in a tree. After discovering some food hidden in the boat and realizing that someone is squatting there, they prepare to flee, only to encounter a man called Mud.
Apparently, Mud has been using the boat as a hideout from some nasty bounty hunters. These bounty hunters (led by Michael Shannon) would like a word with Mud to discuss an incident involving his killing of a man who allegedly assaulted Mud's true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Neckbone would just as soon go home and forget all about Mud, but Ellis is intrigued. He brings Mud food from home, shuttles notes back and forth to Juniper (who is living at a nearby motel) and even rounds up spare boat parts that Mud uses to fix up his tree-boat. Ellis eventually comes to view Mud as the big brother he never had.
Ellis is a good kid: He loves him mom, helps out his dad and tries to be home in time for dinner. He has a genuine belief in love and relationships that is put to the test when his parents (Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson), who both love him dearly, announce they are separating.
Interestingly, this coincides with Ellis' first crush on a local hottie. It is clear that Ellis is trying to navigate the threshold between his childhood curiosity, represented by Mud, and the onset of adulthood, represented by his parent's impending divorce and his first love.
Nichols' film evokes the charm and innocence of days long ago. I was reminded of the times I spent scoping out "mysteries" with my friends from the old neighborhood. Who were the new people that moved in down the street? Who was that pretty girl we always saw walking down the path on the other side of the road?
It's that child-like inquisitiveness, interrupted by the oncoming tide of adulthood, which marks these coming-of-age films. In the best of them, we can, and should, get a little teary-eyed recalling our own lost youth. Nichols does a nice job of keeping the story sweet and simple, focusing on Ellis coming into his own. I started to feel the length a little toward the end, but all loose ends were neatly tied up by the time the end credits rolled.
This is a good role for Matthew McConaughey. He is very nicely transitioning from fluffy heartthrob roles ("How To Lose A Guy in Ten Days," "Failure to Launch") to more substantial adult-oriented parts ("Magic Mike," "Killer Joe"). He's still sexy as hell, even as a tree-dwelling felon (he complies with the requisite McConaughey shirtless scene), but his acting improves with every movie. I enjoyed seeing him in a big brother-type part. He has that certain quality that we'd all want in a big brother: He's cool with the guys, all the girls want to get with him, and yet he always has the time to put his arm around his little brother and dispense some big bro wisdom.
Reese Witherspoon as the lovely Juniper is fine, but doesn't have much to do here; her role is essentially an extended cameo. The real standout here is young Tye Sheridan as Ellis. This kid has a face that is made for the movies, possessing wide features that lend themselves to rendering emotion. He manages several tough scenes very well and holds his own easily against the bigger fish, McConaughey and Witherspoon, not to mention Shepard, Paulson and Shannon. Trust me, this kid is one to watch.
"Mud" is a worthy addition to the coming-of-age sub-genre. Some language and violent situations in the film might be a little rough for the under-13s, but those moviegoers navigating the same pubescent waters as Ellis and Neckbone might just see themselves looking back at them from the screen.