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Mud follows Huck's Mississippi dream

Film Review: Mud (12A, general release, 131 minutes) ****

Director: Jeff Nichols Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon

If the shadows of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer loom long over Jeff Nichols' accomplished and effortlessly engaging drama Mud, the writer/director is up front about his indebtedness to Mark Twain.

In a recent Guardian interview, he admitted his film was inspired in large part by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he first read at the age of 13 and admired hugely for having "bottled what it felt like to be a child".

In a sense Mud has similar aspirations, but its theme of tarnished innocence also echoes Rob Reiner's 1986 film Stand By Me, and cult classic book The Catcher in the Rye.

It also includes another mesmerising performance from the rejuvenated Matthew McConaughey, whom Nichols had always imagined in the lead role.

Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland play Ellis and Neckbone, two Arkansas teenagers from poor and mildly dysfunctional riverbank backgrounds who spend most of their free time lolling in a boat on the Mississippi River.

When the boys motor out to an island one morning to look at a boat that's been flung up a tree by a storm, they meet Mud, a charismatic, wild-eyed countryman who talks as elegantly as a reform preacher but carries a hidden gun.

Mud tells the boys he's looking for his lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who has recently been seen around these parts.

And while the phlegmatic Neckbone quickly decides this Mud is full of crap, Tye is enchanted by his freewheeling romanticism, and agrees to help track her down.

This is only the start of various picaresque adventures, and Mud becomes a sort of surrogate dad for Tye, whose real father is a deflated man who long ago gave up on love.

Nichols' film is richly lyrical but doesn't overdo the symbolism, and its flightier moments are undercut with salty southern wit. It's a charming, eccentric and hugely enjoyable film, and only undoes itself slightly with a jarring all-action sequence near the end.

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