October 24, 2014

Mud: A thoughtful coming-of-age story

Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help you choose what to watch. This week’s pick is a new film from Jeff Nichols, Mud.

When we are young teenagers, we learn how to trust by stretching our boundaries. While we may naturally rely on our parents, we test ourselves in new relationships to determine what feels secure. Only when we confirm how to trust can we move forward with confidence.

Ellis has a lot to figure out. While this 14-year-old knows his home — on a houseboat on the Mississippi River — he questions the future of his family as he witnesses the tension between his parents. While he knows his friends — as he and best buddy Neckbone explore the river in their motorboat — he questions the boundaries parents have set for how far he can travel. And while he knows his heart — as he pursues a relationship with an older girl — he questions what it will take for her to return his attention. And, when Ellis and Neckbone encounter a mysterious loner living on an island in the Mississippi, they begin to realize that learning how to trust is more complicated than they first considered.

The thought-provoking Mud reveals a complex world through the eyes of these young men. Much like the classic coming-of-age films — such as Stand by Me and The Squid and the WhaleMud articulates more questions than it offers solutions. Writer/director Jeff Nichols lets his characters slowly develop as the boys experiment with what they can experience if they follow their instincts. And while we may know what they have yet to discover, from our seats as adults in the theater, Nichols takes his time to tell the story. The result is a satisfying film that reminds us how, when young teenagers experience a freedom to explore, they discover more on their own than parents can teach.

As the film begins, we find ourselves in a place far away from the familiar, where teenagers freely roam without supervision or schedules, and adults set their own rules for relationships. So it’s no surprise when the two boys begin to help the loner recover and launch a boat to freedom. Or that they ask him many questions and get involved with his personal relationships. Why not? With few traditional boundaries and little family support in their lives, they rely on their curiosity to discover what trust can deliver and demand.

Matthew McConaughey continues to redefine his screen persona with a strong character performance as a mysterious man with a surprising willingness to care. While this actor spent years playing superficial characters in silly films, he has recently taken deliberate steps to stretch his authenticity. With this strong performance he continues to reinvent himself as an actor of subtlety. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland excel as the teenage boys as does Sarah Paulson as Sheridan’s mother. Only Reese Witherspoon, as she tries to reestablish her screen presence, seems to struggle with the material in an uncomfortable performance.

As parents, we look for films to share with our teenagers and give us one more thing to talk about. Mud offers a solid story filled with important considerations that can prompt meaningful chat. What better way to spend some movie time together?

 

Film Nutritional Value

Mud

* Content: High. Any opportunity to spend time with such unique characters — who offer important lessons to consider — can be meaningful.

* Entertainment: High. Writer/director Jeff Nichols fills his film with just enough surprise to keep us guessing what may happen next.

* Message: High. As absorbing as the narrative is, what makes the film memorable is Nichols’ careful development of the characters.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk as a family about the experience of developing trust is worthwhile.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your young teenagers can learn about each other as you discuss how people learn how to trust.

 

(Mud is rated PG-13 for “some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking”. The film runs 130 minutes.)

4-1/2 Popcorn Buckets