Two Arkansas boys looking for adventure find more than they bargained for when they meet a stranger in “Mud.” This engrossing movie opens Saturday at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center in Vineyard Haven.
At 14, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are turning the corner past childhood and trying to learn the right moves for manhood. Ellis lives with his parents in a houseboat on the banks of the Mississippi River, while Neckbone shares a trailer with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon).
The raw-boned world of the river offers them an escape from an adulthood that looks a little rocky. Ellis watches enough sparks fly between his parents to suspect his family life is about to go up in smoke, and a parentless Neckbone doesn’t have much of a role model in his uncle, who makes his livelihood underwater with a Rube Goldberg invention of a diving mask. What could be more exciting for two footloose kids than to find a boat stuck by floods in the treetops of an island on the river?
To their surprise, though, the boat is occupied by a man on the lam who calls himself Mud. Played with just the right mix of charm and danger by Matthew McConaughey, Mud befriends the boys and enlists their help. Ellis, in particular, is taken by the mysterious stranger, while the more pragmatic Neckbone senses that Mud means trouble.
Soon they are bringing him food and delivering messages to his friend Tom (Sam Shepard) and the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The boys manage to carry on their adventure full-throttle without letting on to family members. Ellis’s parents are moving toward divorce, but Ellis still tries his hand at teenage romance with May Pearl, and Neckbone watches his uncle’s clumsy liaison with the opposite sex from the sidelines.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols, who grew up in Arkansas, creates dialogue and a setting that pulse with authenticity. Ellis and Neckbone talk a regional lingo that doesn’t beat around the bush, either with Mud or the other adults in their lives. The wild places along the river have a gritty feel that keeps them firmly rooted in the real world at the same time that they feed the boys’ imaginations. And all is not doom and gloom. Mr. Nichols knows how to leaven his storytelling with touches of humor.
The linchpin in this unusual mix is Mud, who doesn’t quite fit in the boys’ world or that of the adults in their lives. Mud’s straightforwardness about what he’s doing — holed up on an island, hiding out from the law and a gang of bad guys while he tries to rescue a woman who doesn’t fit any conventional model of damsel in distress — hooks even the more skeptical Neckbone. The two boys instinctively pick up on the positive parts of his cockeyed worldview.
As the conflict behind childhood fantasy and adult realities grows, “Mud” moves into high gear. With its violent but happy ending, “Mud” moves a little too close to Hollywood-style wish fulfillment, but the ride along the way is a very satisfying one.
And in a special event at the Film Center on Friday, May 24, artistic director for the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society Dee Stevens will give a piano recital in conjunction with screening of the documentary “Wagner and Me” about the German composer’s life and music.
“Mud,” Saturday, May 25, 4 and 7:30 pm; Sunday, May 26, 7:30 pm. $10; $7 for M.V. Film Society members. For information about other films and events at the M.V. Film Center, see mvfilmsociety.com.