Two young boys, looking for adventure and a place to call their own, set off into the wilderness and learn a lot about themselves, adulthood, and the complexities of life in the process. This isn’t a new narrative, by any stretch, and its one that has repeated over centuries in popular culture. There is perhaps no better example of the “young boy in nature” story than Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the novel is the high water mark against which many stories in this vein must be measured.
Every summer seems to herald a number of undercooked, over-exaggerated “trend” pieces about patterns in the films of the summer and about what that says about our culture as a whole. Rest assured, this is not another one of those. Rather, it is an examination of two films that tell similar stories in drastically different ways and with varying levels of success. The last few months have seen the release of both Mud (directed by Jeff Nichols, best known for 2011’s Take Shelter) and The Kings of Summer (the directorial debut of Jordan Vogt-Roberts), films that fall within this subgenre, and that share a startling amount of plot points and thematic concerns.
Mud follows Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two boys growing up on the Mississippi River. When they venture out to an abandoned island in the river in hopes of claiming a fabled boat caught in a tree as their fort for the summer, they happen upon the titular outlaw (Matthew McConaughey), and get caught up in his efforts to locate his lady love (a miscast Reese Witherspoon) and make a daring escape. Similarly, The Kings of Summer is about Joe (Nick Robinson) and his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) executing a plan to escape from their parents and build a house in the woods, where they can live free from oppression and thrive on things they catch and kill themselves.
Both films share surface similarities (including a climactic event that is almost identical), both focus on adolescents getting way over their heads in the service of higher ideals, and both share a thematic emphasis on questions of love, fidelity, and masculinity. These are coming of age films, about boys playing at being men, and about the way real world consequences bleed into their lives in ways they are not prepared for.
The similarities end there, though. Mud is a beautiful, lyrical film that marks Jeff Nichols as a director to watch. It is novelistic in its depth, populated with fully formed, three dimensional characters, littered with motifs (perhaps the best of which is the view of a creek opening into a rushing river, just as the boys are leaving childhood for a much more chaotic adult world), and full of characters who serve as foils for one another, but whose similarities are marked with enough well-realized differences to keep them from feeling like devices in service of the story’s themes. When the film deals with masculinity, it often plays with expectation and the way reality rarely meets it. Ellis is an idealist, believing in true love, justice, and the kind of man who lives his life by a code of honor. Yet the further he ventures into the world, from his dealing with Mud to the trouble in his parents’ marriage and his own tentative stabs at romance, the more that idealism is cracked and he is forced to deal with how to live in a world full of people who are somehow compromised.
The film is also incredibly smart about the way relationships work, and the blindness people develop toward those they love. This is shown through romantic relationships as well as interpersonal ones. The relationship between Mud and Juniper, whose “doomed love” seems to be wearing them both out, and that between Ellis’ parents, Senior (Ray McKinnon, whose still waters run deep) and Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson, who is stellar), who have simply stopped seeing each other and let their relationship atrophy over time. For a movie preoccupied with masculinity, Mud is also adept at creating female characters who operate as more than just counterpoints to the men. At first blush, it seems the women in the film are all unfaithful betrayers, but it quickly becomes clear there is a longer game being played. Every woman in the movie has particular, well-thought out and lived-in reasons for everything she does, and only the willful blindness and immaturity of the men here paint those actions in a negative light. When Ellis rages against Maypearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), his summer flirtation, he comes off as hopelessly naive, and even petulant, and in fact Mud is populated by women who are bastions of reality in a landscape otherwise populated with men whose fantasies about how the world works could use a little deflating. This is a moving film of startling intelligence about adolescence (both actual and of the sort that extends well into adulthood), first love, and the way those things shape the people we eventually become.
While Mud is one of my favorite films of the year so far, The Kings of Summer falls far closer to the other end of the spectrum. If Mud is a novel on the screen, The Kings of Summer is a highlight reel with aspirations of being cinema, a story of boys pretending to be men made by men pretending to be filmmakers. Mud marks Jeff Nichols as a major filmmaker emerging, while The Kings of Summer is a stumble out of the gate for first timers Jordan Vogt Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta. In fairness, Mud is Nichols’ third-outing, and I would love to be surprised in the future by Galletta or Vogt-Roberts, both of whom show promise here, but theirs is a long road to artistic success.
The script for The Kings of Summer was in desperate need of a few more drafts, both to punch up the jokes (this is an ostensible comedy that is slightly light on actual laughs) and to sharpen the emotional resonance. Galletta seems afraid to confront the darker side of his story, and that makes many of his scenes play like the build up to a climax that never arrives. The script also shows its seams in the character of Biaggio (Moises Arias, who is quite good in the role, but can’t save the character from his own irrelevant quirks), a screenwriter’s folly who seems to be there only to throw out a non sequitur whenever the movie needs a joke. Similarly, Vogt-Roberts seems to know how to use a camera, but not how to make a film. There are enough gratuitous shots of nature in this movie to fill a full programming block on the Discovery Channel, but if Vogt-Roberts thinks they’re all supposed to mean something, he seems to have forgotten to let the audience in on what, exactly. There’s a lot of slow motion, lens flaring, and other “tricks of the trade” sprinkled throughout the movie, but they seem more like the flourishes of an unsure director than anything intended to add meaning or resonance to what is happening on screen. This is either the epitome of the “calling card” movie (made mostly to draw attention to the director’s capabilities so they can land a bigger job) or just plain failure to understand what cinematography can add to a story, and what it can subtract when utilized poorly.
Where Mud smartly explores the gulf between adolescent visions of masculinity and its actual counterpart, The Kings of Summer seems to feint in this direction, but remains unsure of how to execute it. Joe yells at his father and his friends, he alienates anyone who crosses his path, and he generally behaves like your vision of an angsty teenager on amphetamines, his discontent telegraphed so broadly and severely, he becomes hard to root for. This could work to the film’s benefit, of course; Joe thinks this is what it means to be a man, but he’s clearly too immature to understand the effects of his actions on others. Yet his rants never seem to have any lasting consequences, and in the end, he seems to be mostly rewarded for his stubborn, juvenile refusal to treat his friends and members of the opposite sex with respect.
In both films, our young heroes’ dalliances with love lead to passionate and discomfiting rants against their romantic interests, about the nature of love and fidelity. The scene in Mud where Ellis rails against Maypearl exposes his ignorance and naivety. It redeems Maypearl by making her indiscretion (insofar as it can even be called an indiscretion) completely reasonable and relatable, and it also shows us a darker side of Ellis while never alienating our sympathies for him. This is a suffering kid who wears his first heartbreak like an open wound, and while he’s wrong to take it out on Maypearl, we understand why he might. When Joe yells at Kelly (Erin Moriarty), his rage is less sympathetic because the filmmakers display an inability to get us on his side. He rages, screams, and behaves violently, but unlike his counterpart in Mud, there’s no evidence that Joe learns anything from this display, and there’s nothing to suggest the filmmakers appreciate the place this scene has in a narrative about Joe’s burgeoning maturity.
Mud and The Kings of Summer are the two most recent coming of age stories to grace our screens. The former is a weighty drama at heart, while the latter at least believes its a light summer comedy. One is a masterful piece of filmmaking, the other a series of miscalculations and missteps. Yet at their core, both films share concerns about what it means to grow up in 2013, when depictions of adulthood and subject matters beyond young comprehension are easier to grasp than ever before, yet no simpler to understand. These are stories about boys and the way they wrestle with ideals about masculinity that are as antiquated and off base as the views of most adolescents (though, for the way it also creates three dimensional women and exposes their difficulties, Mud gets the edge once again). At bottom, each of these stories yearns to join the canon of classic “boys coming of age” stories, and its impossible to view either of these films and not see them in conversation with every story in this genre, reaching back to Twain and beyond. Some stories never die; they just change their shape over time.