"In Nichols' world, understanding isn't taught but something that comes with experience."

Childhood is a place where beliefs are firm, energy levels high and where fairytale concepts such as true love, magic talismans and being friends forever are as real as beans on toast for tea. And if adults come to learn these things are as much myth as fact, it doesn't stop children from trying to make them part of the fabric of their existence. The place where childhood belief and adult reality smudge together is the setting for Jeff Nichols' latest film, which explores ideas of growing up, taking responsibility for your actions and the end of idealism within the framework of a good old-fashioned boy's own adventure romp that Huckleberry Finn or the Famous Five would find much to sympathise with.

Teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) live in DeWitt, Arkansas, although where they really live is less dependent on geography than the strength of their imaginations. Ellis' homelife is simultaneously stable and rocky, with his taciturn dad (Ray McKinnon) and care-worn mum (Sarah Paulson) loving him deeply but unsure about one another. Neckbone, meanwhile, has a more free-range lifestyle under the loose observation of his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon). When the teenagers go hunting for a boat stranded high in a tree by a storm on an island their guardians would consider 'out of bounds', they discover a whole lot more besides.

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The boat, it turns out, is already playing host to someone else who also shouldn't technically be there. Mud (Matthew McConnaughey, so good you'll forget his horrible romcom years) appears, as if by magic, on the beach, his stubble, tan and snake tattoo mixing with tall stories and easygoing charm to make him just dangerous enough for the boys to warm to. That he is on a quest of sorts, waiting for the love of his life - "She's like a dream you don't want to wake up from" - while also being on the run from just about everybody, only adds to his appeal.

So when Ellis and Neckbone spot Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the dream in question, it seems only natural that they try to help the course of true love to run smooth, even as Ellis is making a few clumsily gung-ho moves towards romance himself. Soon love of all sorts - and bullets - are ricocheting around.

Handsomely shot by Adam Stone, we are transported to the Delta and encouraged to leave expectations behind. Though all of the characters are well drawn and fully believable, this is really the story of Ellis and the end of naivety. When we meet him he is a believer, unaware that love can be as much a game as a cast-iron promise. Adults might try to talk to him and Neckbone, showering them with their philosophies and opinions, including, "I work you hard because work is hard" and "You can't trust love, if you're not careful, it'll up and run out on you." - but Nichols knows this might as well be Swahili for all the boys care. "What did he want?" Neckbone asks after Galen attempts to have a heart-to-heart with Ellis. "I have no idea," comes the reply.

In Nichols' world, understanding isn't taught but something that comes with experience. It's only by discovering first-hand that Mud may not be quite such a paragon of virtue and that emotions are hot and molten, that Ellis can start to reshape himself into the adult he is on the cusp of becoming. This is not a case of losing innocence but of gaining knowledge and finding hidden depths and dangers beneath the bits of life that previously looked serene. The adults here - particularly Mud - are also learning that sometimes letting go of something is as inevitable as getting hold of it in the first place.

By setting the action within a quasi-mythic framework Nichols is able to draw us into his big adventure and help us to rediscover the whispers of youth, where boats can be patched up with bric-a-brac, hearts won with chivalry and a teenage boy can learn something about his personality and the world around him without losing his sense of self.

Reviewed on: 07 May 2013
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Two teenagers try to reunite a fugitive with his long-term love.
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Director: Jeff Nichols

Writer: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, Sam Shephard

Year: 2012

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Sundance 2013

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