Why you should care

Here’s a sense of what it is to be a man

What you’ve probably heard about Mud, if you’ve heard anything, is that it’s one in a recent series of movies showcasing a different side of Matthew McConaughey. This is true enough, and reasonable enough: In Mud, the title character is played by McConaughey, and the story’s reason for being is his striking presence.

But what’s truly impressive about this underseen 2013 movie — the third feature from highly adept yet still largely unknown writer-director Jeff Nichols — is a powerful, understated performance by 17-year-old Tye Sheridan as its proper protagonist. Sheridan plays a rural teenager who, along with his best pal (Jacob Lofland, also great), discovers a fugitive (McConaughey) hiding out on a nearby island in the Mississippi River. The mysterious and charismatic Mud becomes a dubious father figure for the boy, who is busy learning to navigate a breaking home and a breaking heart.

A movie in part about crumbling codes of manhood, Mud is more ambitious than its taciturn style might at first suggest…

With hints of Huck Finn and plenty of precocious wisdom and originality, Sheridan transmutes coming-of-age concepts into lived experience. You know this kind of actor: The less he says, the more truth he conveys. A movie in part about crumbling codes of manhood, Mud is more ambitious than its taciturn style might at first suggest, and Sheridan is such a natural, so centered, that even — especially — in moments of great vulnerability he commands the screen.

To Nichols, authenticity obviously means a lot. Not since Billy Bob Thornton’s first forays into screenwriting has a native Arkansan managed so keenly to exude the Right Hollywood Stuff without forgetting where he comes from. It helps to understand how a sense of place becomes a sense of people. And it helps to build your movie around someone like Tye Sheridan, in whom that understanding seems innate.

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