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Now, why’s the director gotta go and make me wear this pesky shirt?

Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ gives us his third movie, and he brings along two of the cast members from his second one, Take Shelter (the always great Michael Shannon and Ray McKinnon). It’s a film that refreshingly shows the south in a way that makes you think more of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, than a bunch of crazy hicks like we saw in Winter’s Bone. There’s so much to like about this movie, and a lot to dislike. It’s a very slowly paced and shallow coming-of-age story. It might have been a great story had it been a book, and been written by Twain.

The kids in this are outstanding (Tye Sheridan from The Tree of Life, and Jacob Lofland). They reminded me of the kids in Stand by Me (but a lot more realistic). Of course, it’s hard to really understand their motivation…or a lot of the characters’ motivations in this.

Sheridan has parents that are on the verge of divorce, and Lofland doesn’t have parents. He lives with his uncle (Michael Shannon). He’s a character we wish we saw more of. He blasts the Beach Boys while having sex, and when one woman runs off, he chases after her wearing half a wet suit. It’s a visual every bit as funny as Sean Penn running into class with an open shirt, jeans, and bagel sticking out of his pants in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Maybe I liked the scene more because I think Shannon is the most interesting actor working today.

There are subtle ways Sheridan feels he’s learning about love from his friendship with Mud (Matthew McConaughey). It might help him understand what his parents are going through, and perhaps learn a little about his first relationship with a girl at school. I thought they could’ve given Mud a few more interesting insights into relationships. Let us see these characters bond, and get us rooting for this fugitive. We learn early on he shot somebody; therefore, I don’t care how much southern charm or how good he looks without his shirt, we really don’t care much for him. Who cares if he’s caught by authorities before being reunited with the woman he loves (Reese Witherspoon). When you want authentic southern accents, this is the perfect couple to cast.

Usually McConaughey has his shirt off in most scenes. There’s only one in this, which is surprising, since he’s near water always working on a boat. He always has a cigarette in his mouth, which made me wonder what happened when Hollywood said they were going to try and have less characters smoking on screen.

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the song selection in movies that it takes me in weird directions. For instance, Witherspoon’s character is named Juniper. I kept thinking they’d play the Donovan song Jennifer Juniper (which wouldn’t have fit this film). I then thought about how they played it in another Witherspoon movie (Election). The score for this film was done nicely by David Wingo.

I felt the relationship Sheridan has with an older girl (Bonnie Sturdivant) could’ve been done better. It starts out with him punching an older guy that’s harassing her. We cringe when he gives her a pearl bracelet and asks her to be his girlfriend. She doesn’t answer, but gently kisses him on the lips. We know what that means. He doesn’t. We also know the direction this relationship will take, and it gets really clichéd getting there.

Sam Shepard, always a welcome addition to a cast, plays an ex-military sharp shooter. He warns the kids to stay away from Mud. His character also goes down clichéd paths as well.

There’s a good performance from Sarah Paulson, who was in the critically panned movie New Year’s Eve, and the critically praised Martha Marcy May Marlene. Both were horrible, but check her out in the incredible Diggers from 2007, which coincidentally also has a character that digs for clams.

I’m convinced using seedy motels is a great place visually for people in movies that have guns to meet up and discuss their plans or have shoot-outs. I’m thinking of movies like No Country For Old Men, No Mercy, and The Getaway (both versions). The motel in this has a collection of bounty hunters, and those scenes don’t really work for me; aside from the location, where you hear the hum of traffic in a nearby freeway, the desk clerk that’s always disinterested as he reads a magazine, etc. Luckily so many other scenes in this film did work. The way the parents fought seemed realistic, especially a scene where they catch their son stealing. Every time the boys are on screen the movie works.

I would’ve liked to have seen more of Shannon, and also wish his character was just a little more assertive. It’s hard to believe a guy that really cares about raising his nephew, and is arguably the most caring character in the film, wouldn’t do more to step in when he realizes what’s happening.

The movie is two hours long, and really needed 30 minutes sliced out of it.

It gets 3 stars out of 5.

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