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“Mud” is a beautifully made, finely acted “this boy’s life” story set along the wide waters of the Mississippi River as it passes through a sleepy stretch of Arkansas and one memorable week for a couple of kids.

As coming-of-age stories go, director Jeff Nichols has a better tale to tell than most. As far as lessons learned, he takes a pretty realistic tone: Some people never learn.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are 14-year-old boys stuck in a town where nothing ever happens. The advantage is that Ellis’ parents and Neck’s uncle allow them free range for whatever action they can dig up – speeding around town on Neck’s dirt bike or cruising the inlets and even the river with an outboard motor. That’s how they come across the cabin cruiser stuck high in a tree on a flood-prone island.

That’s how they also come across Mud, a scraggly mystery man living on the island who spouts voodoo philosophy and eventually tells the boys of his quest to reunite with his long-lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

Matthew McConaughey makes Mud so appealing we understand why the boys don’t just turn tail and run. Mud needs the kids; he tells them they remind him of his younger self; he flatters them and bribes them; and offers them enough teasing bits of romantic adventure to come that they stop worrying about why he’s in hiding.

But despite the movie’s title, this is Ellis’ story. He overhears his parents arguing and finds out his mother wants to leave – even though moving to town means the government will dismantle their houseboat and his father’s livelihood, which comes from the river. Ellis is learning that even the parts of his life he counted on most are not permanent, and it shakes him.

Nichols doesn’t bother with subtleties in connecting Ellis’ desire to help Mud reach his true love with his hope that his parents will stay together. Maybe by fixing one problem, one that is as clear-cut as a fairy tale, he’ll fix another.

Standing in the way of this is one big thing that Mud has left unmentioned – he killed a man in Texas, a man with a vengeful father named King (Joe Don Baker, looking awesomely ferocious), a bounty-hunter brother and a posse of “shoot first, pay off witnesses later” fellows. They have wasted no time tracking Juniper to Arkansas, where she now waits in a motel for Mud to find her – and King to find him.

There aren’t many women in this story – Ellis’ mother, who wants to leave his dad; Juniper, who is serially unfaithful to Mud; and May Pearl, the older high school girl who has stolen Ellis’ heart. The only one who comes across well is the wife of a river hermit named Tom (Sam Shepard), who died in childbirth decades earlier. The rest are condemned to disappointing the men who can’t help but love them.

And this is a love story. It’s a love story about all the other ways people care about each other – as friends, as parents, as stand-ins for parents, and as former lovers who still wish one another nothing but well.

In the end, though, since this is a boys-will-be-boys story all the way through, the lesson that comes across most clearly is aim first, then take your best shot. No matter what it is you’re after.

MUD

Three stars

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard

Director: Jeff Nichols

Running time: 130 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking.

The Lowdown: Two teenage boys in Arkansas meet a fugitive who is being hunted by the family of the man he killed and needs their help to escape with his true love.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com