Two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and “Neckbone” (Jacob Lofland) sneak off in a borrowed boat to an island on the Mississippi to look at a local marvel, a boat that has been stranded by floodwater into a tree. They plan to make this their own secret den, but are horrified to find that it is inhabited. Running back to their ‘borrowed’ boat, they meet the inhabitant of the suspended one, a mysterious stranger calling himself “Mud” (Matthew McConaughy), who makes a deal with them: they provide him with food and supplies, and he’ll leave them the boat when he meets up with a friend, as he shortly plans to do.
As Ellis’ friendship with Mud grows, his home life looks like it’s going to collapse, his parents about to separate and his mother to leave for the city, which means that they’ll lose the houseboat that is both his home and the source of his father’s living on the river. The circumstances of Mud’s life are shown also to be a little more complicated than Ellis and Neckbone first thought as Mud is on the run, both from the police and from some other hunters, and as the ‘friend’ he was waiting for turns out to be the love of his life, a girl called Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
When Ellis and Neckbone see Juniper in a nearby supermarket, they are drawn in to being Mud’s intermediaries with her and come into danger from a menacing stranger. And Ellis starts to develop his ideas about love.
This is a beautiful looking film – even on the crappy airline screen on which I saw it – and it has a wonderful atmosphere. It seems to draw on a number of other books and films (Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn, Stand by Me, The Go-between and even Robinson Crusoe all sprung to mind immediately) but it fashions a narrative and message all it’s own. It has that beautiful, to me, melancholy of some of the best ‘first love’ tales but I did feel that the end was a little bit of a cop-out, if not entirely taking the easy way.