When you think of classic, free-spirited adventures, look no further than Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. They embody mischief, wit and this ideal that children are compelled to do almost whatever they want. Their world and spirits come to the big screen in the engaging, modern-day coming-of-age drama “Mud,” which isn’t an adaptation of any of Mark Twain’s works, but has his fingerprints all over it.
Arkansas teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are best pals who spend their time taking a skiff up and down the Mississippi River to explore. Upon investigating a boat stuck in a tree on a deserted island, they stumble upon Mud (Matthew McConaughey), an unkempt man who’s waiting for his love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to arrive. He asks the boys for help, and Ellis, enraptured by this conviction of true love, agrees to assist him, even when he discovers that Mud is actually a fugitive.
There are plenty of relationships for Ellis to process, given the rough patch his parents are going through, as well as his crush on an older girl, and the theme of love is reflected quite effectively and frequently. It all works quite well, because by spending a good chunk of time with Ellis and seeing how he comprehends and interacts with his environment, we are able to understand his mind and motives for his actions, à la Tom and Huckleberry.
The film works well as a character drama and an adventure, yet the balance between the two is tipsy, if not sometimes uneven. Ellis’s personal struggles don’t complement well with his efforts to help Mud until the third act, resulting in occasional, seesawing tonal shifts that can be rather distracting. At times, “Mud” feels like two films within one, and its intention to mesh its parallel narratives doesn’t quite come to fruition.
The performances that impress the most come from the youngest actors, as Sheridan brings a gravitas to Ellis that makes the character formidable, and Lofland approaches his role with such aloofness that Neckbone becomes instantly likable. McConaughey is subtle here in comparison to his recent outings, but still brings a welcome, grizzled Southern charm to Mud.
The Mississippi River that Tom and Huckleberry often frequent in Twain’s novels is equally full of life in the film, with a never-still camera weaving around, in and out of this environment, often appropriately awash in dull, swamp-like colors.
Though it runs on a bumpy road from a storytelling standpoint, “Mud” is undeniably an alluring, quality picture that boasts of unpredictable maturity. This is an adventure that Tom and Huckleberry would certainly take, and one that Twain himself would definitely enjoy.
Recommended. This Southern drama is impressive.