A rather simple story about an estranged father and son who struggle to bond in the aftermath of a family tragedy is given alternately highly melodramatic and strangely comic treatment by writer-director Michael Burke in this odd but sporadically incisive debut feature. A film that’s half about dealing with grief and half about coming of age, told with a gay twist and some very peculiar barnyard humor, “The Mudge Boy” is more weirdly intriguing than genuinely convincing or moving, but anyone looking for an offbeat way to spend ninety-four minutes might check it out.
The title character is Duncan Mudge (Emile Hirsch), a shy, introverted fourteen-year old who lives with his father Edgar (Richard Jenkins) on a Vermont farm. Duncan, clearly devastated by the recent death of his mother, dotes on the chickens that were her special concern, even carting one around with him as a pet, and occasionally puts on one of her old coats to comfort him. His father is obviously suffering too, but he’s a taciturn type unable to express his feelings or reach out to his son, and their relationship grows increasingly strained. Hoping to help the boy to develop more normally, Edgar encourages Duncan to connect with the local youths, a rough bunch who mostly drink, drive and party, even though they dismiss him as a oddball except on the occasions when his cash is of use to them. But one of them, Perry (Thomas Guiry) takes a sort of protective interest in Duncan. Perhaps that’s because of his own mistreatment by his father, which, it’s suggested, makes him sympathize with Duncan’s loneliness; but as their relationship develops, it appears that Perry’s attitude toward the boy has an underlying sexual component, something that he himself doesn’t understand and can’t admit. The upshot is an act of humiliation that destroys their bond, a forceful reaction by Edgar to break the dead mother’s hold on his son, and a frightening choice by Duncan involving his pet chicken that’s in effect a denial of his past emotional ties as well as an effort to save himself in the face of Perry’s rejection.
The tone throughout “The Mudge Boy” is earnest and sincere, but the seriousness is too often undercut by plot turns that are unintentionally risible. The whole business with the chicken seems forced, especially Duncan’s habit of calming the animal by inserting its head into his mouth, an act that not only looks peculiar but strikes an especially odd note given the script’s gay subplot. The transvestite moments take the picture into territory that skirts the line as well, especially when Duncan dons his mother’s wedding dress–in a scene that then abruptly turns tragic. Still, in spite of the odd and often jarring transitions, the picture has strengths. Hirsch and Jenkins are certainly the chief reasons to see it, their able work giving it a dramatic heft it wouldn’t otherwise possess. The former, who made a strong impression in “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” and the more problematic “The Girl Next Door,” draws an affecting portrait of a sensitive boy, even when the script calls upon him to carry off some really extreme moments involving either Perry or his favorite pet. Jenkins adds to his gallery of fine character turns as Duncan’s uncommunicative dad. Guiry is also good, though Perry’s confusion makes it a difficult, opaque part that no one could make completely convincing. The supporting players all seem authentic, though some of the guys overdo the tough-guy routine a little. That might be the fault of Burke, whose direction seems somewhat lax when Hirsch and Jenkins aren’t involved; as a result precisely how much he had to do with the strength of their performances isn’t clear. Technically this is a modest production, with no-frills cinematography by Vanja Cernjui. But composer Marcelo Zarvos’ spare score makes an effect–he’s becoming a name to look for in the credits of independent efforts such as this.
In the final analysis “The Mudge Boy” isn’t a strong enough film to seek out in the theatre, but when it winds up on DVD or cable, it will be worth a look for the lead turns alone.