For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.
While it’s not without its problems, Jeff Nichols’ parable Mud hit a personal sweet spot for me. Long have I lamented the recent state of American films made with a younger audience in mind, and I have suffered through countless neutered, cut-and-paste family films that are terrified of taking any risks and leave zero moral grey area for kids to interpret themselves. Mud however is a throwback to many films from my 1980s youth, recalling the earlier work Dante, Zemeckis, Rob Reiner, and most obviously Spielberg.
I can’t remember the last time a movie nailed the universal nuances of boyhood quite as well as Mud. The Tree of Life springs to mind, but Mud doesn’t have the same cryptic ambition. Nichols just wants to spin an old-fashioned boy’s adventure yarn, and for the most part, especially when he sticks with the boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who coincidentally also had a part in The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) in two remarkably assured performances from such young actors.
Nichols packs the supporting cast with bigger names including Matthew McConaughey (still in the thick of an amazing comeback streak), Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, and Joe Don Baker, but they all, with the possible exception of McConaughey, play second fiddle to the boys. Unfortunately Nichols’ writing of the adult characters didn’t seem to be as important either, as Shannon, Witherspoon and Baker aren’t given much to do, and the always tremendous Shepard doesn’t really get as much screen time as I would have liked from his character.
Anyone with kids around the same age as the leads, particularly boys, should seek out Mud. It’s darker than most family fare these days, and prying deeper into the film might yield some questionable gender issues, but it captures the spirit of being a kid so well that real kids will be swept away with it.