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Two boys learn the ugly truth about life and love in this coming-of-age drama

Jacob Lofland, Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan star in Mud, a mesmerizing story of hope, sorrow and brutality. <<Lionsgate>>

What would you do if you found a boat in a tree? Fourteen-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan: The Tree of Life) and his best bud Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) claim it.
    A bag of groceries and boot prints hint that the boys might not be the only two who have discovered the boat on this remote river island in the Arkansas delta. Soon they stumble upon Mud (Matthew McConaughey: Killer Joe), an affable loner who tells the boys that he’s waiting in the boat for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon: This Means War).
    Neck senses trouble immediately, but Ellis, who’s watching his parent’s marriage crumble, admires Mud’s devotion. Soon, state troopers show up in town looking for Mud, who it turns out isn’t a river bum but a ­wanted man. Neck wants to turn in Mud and reclaim their boat, but Ellis wants Mud’s side of the story.
    Ellis is overjoyed to hear that Mud’s crime was committed to salvage the honor of his beloved Juniper. Since Mud’s a good guy, the boys decide to keep him and the boat a secret. They bring him food, steal parts for the boat and listen to his ruminations of life, love and luck.
    The boys are too wrapped up in their latest adventure to see they are closing on danger.
    Mud takes on three themes: the death of small fishing communities, the breaking of youthful ideals and the dangers of all-consuming love. That’s a lot of subjects for one film, but writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) is a master of setting, tone and storytelling. He tells the story of the recession wordlessly, filling the shots with shabby signs, empty storefronts and dilapidated houses.
    Mud uses a surprising amount of humor for a film with so many dark themes. Most of the laughs come from newcomer Lofland (who bears a striking resemblance to a young River Phoenix), who has a natural comic delivery and presence. Nichols also finds humor by casting one of his standby actors, the always-intense Michael Shannon, against type as Neck’s roguish, goofy uncle.
    The center of the film, however is Ellis, and Nichols takes pains to chronicle his disillusioned journey into adulthood. As Ellis, Sheridan is a dirt-smeared vision of boyish hope. He still believes that problems have an easy fix and love can be eternal and sacred. Sheridan is capable of exuding enthusiasm and naivety without seeming cloying.
    The real shock of Mud, however, is McConaughey, who somewhere in the last two years decided to become a real actor. His subtle, spellbinding role made this reviewer question her previous assessment of the drawling Texan. I’m still not quite convinced this is the same man that starred in Surfer Dude a mere two years ago. Yet McConaughey even manages to stay clothed as he delivers a moving and fascinating performance as a wanted man desperate to find peace with the woman he loves.
    Though a deeply nuanced and heartfelt film, Mud gets murky when dealing with its female characters. Women are more catalyst than character. Though Ellis’ mother, Juniper and Ellis’ potential girlfriend all have reasons for their actions, they don’t interest Nichols. It’s a testament to his writing and the performances that this bit of sexism doesn’t sink Mud.
    A story about the dark things that wash up along an Arkansas river, Mud is a mesmerizing story of hope, sorrow and brutality.

Excellent Drama • PG-13 • 130 mins.