"Mud" has all the stuff of a full-blown boy's adventure -- boats, dirt bikes, a gun, a girl, a river, bad guys, good guys, shootouts and the same river where, once upon a time, Tom and Huck played pirates. It's not a kids movie, but a sense of youth and freedom informs this latest from the gifted Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter," "Shotgun Stories"), even as its various characters are resisting imminent forms of confinement.
Chief among them is Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a 14-year-old Arkansan who lives on a houseboat with his wrangling parents (Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon) and faces becoming a "townie" if Mom unloads the boat. It'll be a soggy fate, but not as bad as what's facing Mud (a solid if eccentric Matthew McConaughey), the charismatic fugitive whom Ellis and his pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find living on their favorite island in the Arkansas Delta. Mud killed a man, he tells them, to protect his lifelong love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The family of the dead man is assembling in town, planning Mud's violent demise. The boys agree to help him, and the great adventure of their young lives is under way.
Whether it's the great adventure of the moviegoer's life will depend on how flexible he or she is toward a story that's as rambling and overabundant as the Mississippi. Nichols' wild narrative tributaries all eventually intersect, and at no time does he let one's attention stall. Behind Mud's murderous act is his obsession with Juniper, who's unworthy of his devotion; likewise Ellis' love object, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), who provides the boy's first heartbreak.
There's a great deal of coincidence in the film, and no small amount of appeal to one's inner adolescent. Still, the raggedy nature of "Mud" contributes to its charm, which is considerable.
PLOT Two Arkansas lads help a fugitive living on an island in the Delta, as a gang of vigilantes prepares to shoot their new friend down.
RATING PG-13 (some violence, sexual references, language)
BOTTOM LINE Shaggy, picaresque drama with a convincing McConaughey and a terrific pair of kids.