“A polar bear fell on me.”

Atlanta Film Fest MUD-dies the waters on Day 1

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Last night the 37th annual Atlanta Film Festival started at the recently renovated Plaza Theatre.

The opening film was recently shown at SXSW (South by Southwest) as part of their programming and I had many friends who praised it so I was pleased  to do so as part of the opening festivities here in Atlanta.

Mud Banner Poster
MUD is the latest from Arkansas director Jeff Nichols and he, along with cinematographer Adam Stone, do an excellent job of capturing the sounds, textures and people of an area of the United States usually reserved for either disdain or bad Bill Clinton jokes.
Nichols’ film takes us to places so small they barely have names; where the people live hand-to-mouth (Ray McKinnon’s character Senior makes his living selling fish door-to-door) and to many eyes would be considered poor or white trash.

However, there’s no shame in any of it. It is just the way it is, simple. Simple too is the idea of love conquering all. The idea that your parents will be together always. That every bit of movies, books and television’s tales to us over and over of love making things work out in the end is true. These are the things that young Ellis (Tye Sheriden) just knows to be true. Wants to be true.

Because when he and his best friend Neckbone (man, what a great name), played by Jacob Lofland, find first a boat in a tree, and then later the man named Mud (which is not as cool a name as Neckbone) who has laid claim to their prize… well, love is why he is hiding out on a small island in the Mississippi. Capital “L” love, no less. Mud, (Matthew McConaughey) is a man on the run after actions done in defense of his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, in a small and restrained role) have brought the family of the man he wronged down on his head.

Ellis’ longing for love to be real and tangible is clear on his face. It is the crushing disappointment in the straits of his parent’s marriage removing the foundation (not just figurative but literal) out from under him if his mother leaves and the houseboat they live on and make a living from is being destroyed. It is assuming one small kiss makes an older girl his girlfriend. It is doing whatever he and Neckbone can to help Mud fix the boat so he and Juniper run away together.

It is not hearing from Tom Blankenship (a friend of Mud’s) that Juniper has broken Mud’s heart for decades and that he keeps going back for more with futile gestures. It is not being reminded that he’s only 14 and therefore doesn’t know what “love” is. Sheridan and Lofland (whose film this is as much as McConaughey) have their emotions as plain as day all over their faces.

You can’t just “love”, Ellis. It’ll up and run out on ya.  – Senior

Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey and Jacob Lofland

Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey and Jacob Lofland

Neckbone lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) , who while not his parent, does the best he can for the boy. It is nice to see Shannon in a non-menacing role for once and there are surprising bits of humor from him and throughout the film itself. Neckbone secures the deal to help Mud get the boat into the water but forgets a crucial part of the deal to his own dismay and the delight of the audience.

While you think perhaps that Neckbone is not as smart or as gentle as Ellis, you are wrong. He is just a bit harder and perhaps smarter in the self-preservation department. Lofland’s performance here is every bit of nuanced as Sheridan’s and I look forward to watching these two young men grow up on screen in front of us. I can only hope they collectively keep the street savvy and faith in others that their characters spill out on the screen.

Perhaps it helped that Ray McKinnon, playing Ellis’ dad Senior was in the audience. When I chatted with him briefly on the red carpet before the screening he explained that his character is a bit of an anachronism; unwilling or unable to change and leave the river and work-life that is all he’s known. He apologized for being late to the premier (as everyone had waited for about an hour)

Ray McKinnon at the Atlanta Film Fest for MUD

Ray McKinnon at the Atlanta Film Fest for MUD

I asked if they had had time to workshop this film…to get to know these characters very well?
He had mentioned that Nichols had written Senior with him in mind, and that he didn’t want to be the one who ruined the film.

McKinnon: Jeff believes, and so do I in rehearsal. So he built in some time to the shooting schedule and brought in both boys a couple of weeks early.

H: So it wasn’t just a few days out?
McKinnon: No, no. So they got to be in that environment. They’re both country boys, so it wasn’t completely foreign to them. He brought me in so I could be mean to ‘em. (laughs)

H: So you practiced being mean? Did you have younger siblings to practice on?
McKinnon: I have two older sisters. But I am an observer of human nature as I go about my journey.

That was all the time I had due to the lateness of the hour (and that the folks ahead of me had like 30 questions) so we had to cut it short.

I found out during the opening night welcome speech that Ray had never seen the finished product either, so he would be watching with fresh eyes like all of us. He ended up just across the aisle from me, and I could hear him chuckling along with the crowd. A few times there were small exclamations of ‘aha’ or the like… marveling at director Jeff Nichols’ final vision for MUD.

The Tale of Mud and Juniper could be its own kind of southern folk tale – something told ‘round bonfires to bring good luck all up and down the Mississippi. And that is as it should be. Tales of love, and struggle and sometimes maybe even triumph do go well with s’mores, after all.

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Big thanks to Johnathan and Lindsey from Allied and the Atlanta Film Fest for making this happen. You can find me on the tweety here.