(director/writer: Jeff Nichols; cinematographer: Adam Stone; editor: Julie Monroe; music: David Wingo; cast: Matthew McConaughey (Mud), Jacob Lofland (Neckbone), Tye Sheridan (Ellis), Reese Witherspoon (Juniper), Sam Shepard (Tom Blankenship), Michael Shannon (Uncle Galen), Sarah Paulson (Mary Lee), Ray McKinnon (Senior), Paul Sparks (Carver), Joe Don Baker (King), Bonnie Sturdivant (May Pearl); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Sarah Green; LionsGate; 2012)

A realistic, gripping and expressive boys’ coming-of-age adventure story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A realistic, gripping and expressive boys’ coming-of-age adventure story directed and written with country soul by Arkansas native Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter”/”Shotgun Stories”) and earnestly told from the POV of the 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who live with their small-time fishermen families struggling to survive in their Delta small-town in Arkansas. Ellis, the leader, lives on a houseboat on the river and helps his dad (Ray McKinnon) sell catfish, while mom (Sarah Paulson) is tired of this kind of marginal life and is getting a divorce and moving to town to restart her tired life. Neckbone never knew his folks and lives with his young and frisky oyster diver Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon).

The two “Huckleberry Finn” like adventurous boys during their summer school break take their motorboat, without parental permission, to a nearby desolate island on the Mississippi River and while eying a damaged boat hanging from a tree meet the scraggy looking Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who amiably tells the skeptical lads a wild story of why he landed on the island. The curious boys initially agree to bring him back food, and then deliver messages to his girlfriend and then get parts for the damaged motorboat so he can make his getaway with his girlfriend. The boys spot in town, living in a motel, the girl Mud says he loves, the femme fatale Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Since seeing is believing, the boys after meeting Juniper buy all-in on his story of killing an abusive dude in Texas who Juniper ran away with and that he did it in order to protect the girl he still loves even though she dumped him.

We learn the dead man came from a rich family and his revenge-minded father (Joe Don Baker) and his ruthless brother Carver (Paul Sparks) followed Juniper to Arkansas, where the rough brother meets her in the dumpy motel where she is staying and threatens her. The vengeful family also hired a bunch of bounty hunters to kill Mud, and they watch Juniper believing she will lead them to their wanted man. Also the state troopers have wanted posters of the killer and are after him, just not as intensely as the bounty hunters.

The boys side with Mud and face all sorts of risks while helping such a sketchy character, and at the same time learn harsh lessons about adult realities, the perils of love, how devious women can be and how unjust life can be when they see they’re familiar Southern way of life vanishing under laws they can’t grapple with. The boys also learn that virtuous lessons from their loved ones of being honest, working hard and always telling the truth, sounds good in theory but might not always be sound advice in real life.

It’s an excellent lyrical film that captures a changing way of life for poor rural white folks, who must also face how love has different meanings for different folks. What gets asked the loudest is how can a boy learn to be a man when so many modern-day families no longer remain together. In the end the fantastic pic goes over-the-top with an unbelievable violent ending that left holes in its beautiful fable and left me troubled with this lazy convenient way to end such a classical American story with such a recycled from Hollywood pulp climax.

The acting is terrific by all concerned, especially by a vigorous McConaughey, a sensitive Sheridan, a cautious Lofland and a surprisingly believable Witherspoon as a trashy chic who is what she is (she returns to a more arty performance from a series of bad roles in raucous mainstream comedies). Sam Shepard ably plays a mysterious riverboat dweller, a shadowy character who acts as the damaged-soul surrogate father figure of Mud and who is possibly his real dad.

REVIEWED ON 11/17/2013 GRADE: A-