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Boys become men in the refreshingly masculine-themed Mud. It’s a wild, incredible adventure story. A man (Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club) takes a secretive, squatter’s residence on an island in Arkansas. Two young, developing boys find him. Mud‘s about what happens when they do.

It’s like an all-star, Southern-accented mixture of To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, Goodfellas and Bible stories rolled into one raucous, alternately methodical and violent tale. Beyond comparisons, which are warranted, it’s a psychological drama with a romantic theme about the mirror-like journey of the rare boy who chooses to become a man and the rarer man who chooses to dust off disappointment and reclaim his best boyishness. Don’t let Christian symbolism – serpents, crosses, even an ark – fool you: Mud molds men based on reason, not faith.

It’s possibly the best movie this year.

Writer and director Jeff Nichols brings simple screenwriting and filmmaking to muted light in a gray, overcast river town down south. We meet the damaged boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, evoking Rupert Grint in the Harry Potter series) who are lookin’ to get out. They flip through girlie magazines, talk about “titties” and try to figure “the right thing to do” as they navigate defective parents and guardians. When the pals set out on a river boat, they take a short breath going past unseen boundaries their parents have foolishly, dangerously failed to establish. They make a few waves in their wake. This pair of heathens is up to no good in the most innocent, natural sense. It’s easy to see that they’re about to cause real, serious trouble.

In a town with people named Juniper and Galen and a mean old codger named Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), that could do damage and that’s the last thing this broken down town needs. Men dive deep in these parts, digging up secrets. Dredging it up as two wandering boys are bound to do, might just rock the boat and change the world. I know I’m having a little bit of fun with this. But so does Mud, which layers on symbols with relish as it renders lesson after lesson after lesson.

“Don’t get bit.” That’s what the filthy stranger – don’t call him a bum – named Mud (it’s what he goes by) advises the river boys who lay claim to the temporary home Mud inhabits near cottonmouth snakes and other dangerous types. “Watch yourself,” people tell these two kids time and again as they mark, observe and go about their proper if misguided mission to grow up and get on with girls and life.

But Mud’s on a bender and it amounts to his mysterious life, so it ain’t gonna be easy. Everybody in this film talks like that. You may start talking like that, too, after spending ten minutes with these folks, from Reese Witherspoon as a hussy in cut-offs to Joe Don Baker as a Big Daddy-type thug, so Nichols gets the cast exactly right. Especially two exceptional, adultish child performances from the boys in the tradition of Quinn Cummings in The Goodbye Girl and Justin Henry in Kramer Vs. Kramer. The boys play off one another in razor-sharp turns that add layers to a script already thick with thought. Be alert or miss the dry, good humor in Neckbone’s easy one-liners.

Their interplay makes Mud more meaningful and, remarkably, keeps this zinger realistic, though it stretches plausibility toward the end. In one important early scene, it’s Neckbone who gives up information. Then, Ellis steps up to say more than he should. Like that, the river boys are alternating an exercise in trust, friendship and guardianship for one another that unfolds throughout the movie amid boyhood crushes, broken hearts and matters of life and death. We see trepidation on their faces as they ride the river to Mud’s mysterious island. Mud makes men from boys in plain sight of their fathers and father figures. This is a father-son film. But it’s friendship that drives the plot.

A woman’s proper place falls to Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave), proving to be the year’s most versatile actress, this time as a conflicted mother to Ellis. In a small but crucial role to keep the movie from becoming too conservative, her mother Mary is a model for her son and she’s more of a man than her husband, a weakling of few words who, like Mud, is tested and judged on whether he finds manhood in himself. Mud is that deep and flowing, like the mighty Mississippi, hitting the essence of what makes – and unmakes – a man: warding off evil spirits, as Mud puts it, taking ownership based on property rights and using or abusing the power to make a baby. It taps reason, romantic love and making the world one’s own to motor, rev up and master.

Mud is one fantastic – almost too fantastic – and engrossing motion picture. “You remind me of … me,” the grizzled river tramp, well played by McConaughey, says to the boys. The art of Mud lies in how – and why – he says it. Picturing a boat on the backend as denouement to a quiet early scene, there’s much to mine in Mud, mercifully shot with solid, stationary filmmaking. The message is like the reward and it goes against almost everything we’re told: get into it deep and make some waves.