It's been almost a year since Mud made its world premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Set in writer/director Jeff Nichols' home state of Arkansas, it tracks the adventures of two boys along the wide expanse of the Mississippi river as they run into Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a charismatic fugitive on the run who is looking to be reunited with his childhood sweetheart. An independent film that wears the influences of Mark Twain and Terrence Malick on its sleeve, this bittersweet but bloated drama is full of charm if lacking in originality.
Mud, which has just played at Sundance London and goes on general release in the UK on 10 May, might be the film's name, but the movie is carried by its childhood leads Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone. Both are southern natives born and raised in similar locations to the ones shown on screen, giving their performances an essential layer of authenticity.
Sheridan, who'd previously played the youngest child in Malick's The Tree of Life, is phenomenal as the young teenager struggling to keep hold of his emotions. An intelligent individual whose violent temper can get the best of him, his captivating performance anchors the film.
The adults also get their chance to shine, with McConuaghey in particular proving what an exceptional actor he is. From playing the uninteresting Hollywood hunk throughout the noughties his recent bold choices include the sinister hitman in Killer Joe and the strip club owner in Magic Mike. Full of natural charisma, his star persona is perfectly channelled into the wily fugitive outlaw, a man of action who, like the river, is constantly on the move.
Reese Witherspoon also stands out in her small role as love interest Juniper, and Ray McKinnon is excellent as Ellis's dogged but downtrodden father. Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon are surprisingly underused as the mysterious neighbour Tom and friendly uncle Galen, their roles for the most part superfluous to the story.
The film's central bond is between Ellis and Mud, two kindred spirits who are powered by love. With Ellis's parents on the verge of separation and the local government ruling their riverside shack illegal, his domestic life is literally about to be destroyed. Confused as to how his parent's love could crumble, he is inspired by Mud's hellbent intention of evading capture and running off with Juniper.
The tale beautifully captures life along the banks of the Mississippi in a similar way to how Beasts of the Southern Wild showed Louisiana - the two teenagers' musings on growing up in the wild expanse a great 21st century homage to Huckleberry Finn. The dreamlike images are complimented by a moving camera that conjures the work of Malick, even if it doesn't contain his ethereal editing style.
The enchanting opening hour unfortunately soon gives way to a rather generic fugitive-on-the-run tale that contains an underdeveloped villain and moments of action that fail to excite. The melodrama can be excused by the fact that it is told from a child's perspective but not that the violent scenes lack the same gritty authenticity as the rest of the picture.
But watching Mud is still an enthralling adventure. Its devoted depiction of growing up in the southern US gives the muddy banks of the Mississippi a wonderfully romantic edge, perfectly capturing how when we are young feelings such as love can be as expansive and uncontrollable as that famous river.