Matthew McConaughey has years of bad films to atone for and with Mud he comes one step closer to making us forget those lost years of wasted talent. Though, it’s the two young actors at the center of this coming of age reflection on love and family that somehow manage to steal the show in spite of the outstanding cast and McConaughey’s soulful performance in the title role.

Both Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone are total naturals and deliver star making performances reminiscent of those in Stand By Me. Sheridan has that same combination that River Phoenix possessed of a seemingly tough exterior mixed with a deep vulnerability and innocence. Lofland matches up to Sheridan with his funny, charming performance as Ellis’s practical and loyal best friend.

The boys set off on an adventure to a nearby island along the Mississippi River to claim a boat wedged up in a tree as their summer hideaway only to find someone has beat them to it. They get a lot more than they were looking for when they stumble upon a mysterious stranger living on the island named Mud who they soon discover is wanted for murder.  Mud enlists the boys in helping him to fix up the boat, so he can escape with his childhood sweetheart and love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon.) Like all love stories with a history of violence, trouble follows and the boys find their plans for a carefree summer dangerously complicated.

Reese Witherspoon is right at home as the damaged, sexy white trash Juniper who can’t seem to stop breaking Mud’s heart. The stripped down role suits her and you can see why Mud keeps coming back for more. Michael Shannon is great as always and makes the most of his little time on screen as Neckbone’s uncle Galen who is a lot wiser than he appears.

Mud is grounded in the sad reality of a dying way of life on the River that was fantastically portrayed in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here it lends a timeless, time capsule feeling to the story. The adults are inherently flawed but you can’t help but root for them not only because they want to be better but also because who among us hasn’t made mistakes on the road from adolescence to adulthood. Those missteps, along with the pain, wonder and discovery of adolescence are the heart of Mud. Ellis has his ideal picture of love tested more than once. But, Mud makes the argument that no matter how many times our idea of love is tested, we keep hoping because ultimately it’s what we’re all looking for; love and a reason for being, a sense that we matter in the world even in a small way.

 

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