You may not think you need another small-town America coming-of-age indie, but believe me, you definitely need Mud.
This hazy drama tells the story of two 14-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who live in an Arkansas fishing community. One day, they stumble on the mysterious, alluring Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and inadvertently get tied up with his shady past by agreeing to help Mud get in touch with the girl he loves (Reece Witherspoon).
The plot of Mud is simple enough, but it’s director Jeff Nichols’ screenplay that adds layers of richness, giving the film a novelistic feel. Nichols proved with his previous project, 2011’s Take Shelter, to have a knack for authentically portraying “regular” characters caught in quietly extraordinary situations, and he only tops himself with Mud. Even the most minor characters feel wonderfully complex, and it’s easy to become immediately sucked into the small community that Nichols lifts the curtain on.
Of course, it also helps to have great actors telling your story, and Mud has plenty of top-notch performances to offer, too. McConaughey continues his resurgence here, and he is mesmerizing as Mud. We understand instantly why the boys are drawn to him, but we also see the strong undercurrent of danger that keeps them partially at arm’s length. McConaughey believably conveys both the quiet menace and the true sensitivity that Mud wrestles with, and it may actually be his best performance since 1993’s Dazed and Confused. Also stellar is young Tye Sheridan, who marks his spot high on the “actors to watch” list. As the emotional stakes skyrocket later on in the film, Sheridan sells every moment of feeling. He’s so relatable as a confused adolescent slowly getting the optimism knocked out of him, and while Ellis has strengths and weaknesses just like every character in the movie, Sheridan is easy to sympathize with.
Mud calls to mind other great coming-of-age movies, such as Stand By Me, Mean Creek, and the early films of David Gordon Green. Yet, thanks to Nichols’ hyper-assured direction, nothing feels redundant. He crafts the sense of Americana and yearning in subtle but wholly authentic ways, and his spot-on sense of mood and deliberate pacing made Mud a unique and unexpectedly profound viewing experience. It may not hit everyone on an emotional level, but even if it doesn’t, it’d be hard not to recognize the craft.