Tye Sheridan, who was outstanding in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, stars as Ellis, a fourteen year-old boy who lives on a houseboat in small-town Arkansas with his mother and father, who are going through a divorce. While sneaking out to a nearby island on the Mississippi River, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) come across a mysterious hermit named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who is living on the edge of town in a boat stuck in the top of a tree.
Hiding from the law, Mud asks Ellis and Neckbone to help him find and win back the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who still lives in the town. Meanwhile, Ellis falls in love and gets his heart broken for the first time with a girl at school. There’s a scene in this film in which the young girl rejects Ellis and he learns that he cannot always wear his heart on his sleeve that reminded me of a scene from one of my own films.
But even as all semblances of true love are falling apart around him – nearly all of the film’s characters have either irretrievably fallen into the spell of love, or have been hurt so badly that they advise against it at all costs – Ellis puts his hope in the love between Mud and Juniper.
The cast is extraordinary, with outstanding supporting performances from Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, and Nichols has such an excellent control of atmosphere and place. When Ellis sits in the back of his father’s pick-up truck as he drives through town, I feel like I know this town, having seen such critical and formative parts of Ellis’ life occur in the various locations they pass.