One of the more daunting narrative challenges of any medium is to give the audience a genuine depiction of what it is like to come-of-age as a teenager.
We like to think of those years as being our best, because we had fewer matters to worry about and more time to worry about them if we cared enough. While it can be easy to convey the carefree attitude and mundanity of that period in our lives, the challenge is in recapturing the emotional and psychological confusion of being 14 and figuring out which way is up.
Jeff Nichols’, a Little Rock native, successfully captures this mindset with his third-feature film, “Mud,” which debuted at Cannes in 2012 and was a part of the 2013 Sundance film festival.
“Mud” is the story of Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two teenagers growing up in DeWitt, a small town in the Delta region of southeast Arkansas.
One day, while exploring an island on the river, they discover a boat left in a tree by flooding. The teens plan to claim the vessel as their own, but are thwarted when they find Mud (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out there.
After the boys befriend the man who owns only a .45 pistol and the shirt on his back, they discover Mud is on the run from bounty hunters for killing a man in Texas who abused the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
With “Mud,” Nichols explores the various stages and viewpoints of love by putting Ellis through the wringer of experiencing his parents divorce and the bite of his first crush. Sheridan, whose only previous credit was 2011’s “The Tree of Life,” impressively handles the emotions of a boy experiencing an onslaught of different messages about this brand-new territory for a teenager.
Child actors usually have a thankless job, but Sheridan gives the most memorable adolescent performance since Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning in “Super 8.”
“Mud” is the latest in a string of movies which are distancing McConaughey from the rom-com movies that defined his career during the 2000s. Instead of the surfer dude persona, McConaughey’s Mud exhibits a refreshing air of world-weariness while also expressing the heart of a hopeless romantic who would do anything to be with Juniper. Mud might be capable of killing a man, but McConaughey makes him the most trustworthy person for the audience and Ellis.
There are many storylines present in “Mud,” but Nichols makes sure not to stray away from the important threads for too long, devoting enough time for the audience to invest in Mud and Ellis’ journeys. As a result, some characters feel slightly underdeveloped, including Juniper and Neckbone’s uncle, played by “Boardwalk Empire” and “Man of Steel” star Michael Shannon.
Nichols works the storylines to produce an ending that promises to be more emotionally fulfilling and thrilling than most of the summer movie releases we’ve seen so far.
With “Mud,” Nichols reminds you how wondrous the promise of love can be at any age, but also shows what can happen when the new-car shine wears off and reality sets in. While the story can be painful at times, it’s always genuine and earned.
Through the pain, wonder and confusion, “Mud” is one of the more hopeful movies you’ll find these days.