Pete Hammond

Judging from the bad buzz that has haunted it since a 2PM buyers screening on May 16, the first day of the 65th Cannes Film Festival, you might have thought FilmNation’s and Everest Entertainment’s  Mud was as appealing at its title. One published report a couple of days later said despite the fact it is one of the few movies with major stars still up for grabs and looking for distribution that “it didn’t take long for the theatre to start clearing out” including Harvey Weinstein who supposedly “left after 20 minutes” according to the report. (Actually that reporter got it wrong according to a well-placed source with knowledge of the situation. Weinstein stayed an hour before leaving but had told the filmmakers in advance he couldn’t stay for the entire duration of the film).

Well, those guys may have blown it. Now on the last day of official competition screenings Mud, which features big names like Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon and was directed and written by Take Shelter‘s Jeff Nichols, finally had its long-awaited press screening Saturday morning (official premiere is tonight) as the last of the 22 entries to be shown to the media and the response was clearly a lot more enthusiastic than what came out of that ill-fated first buyers screening (a second one was held a few days later). In fact it received by far the biggest applause I have yet heard at one of these 8:30AM screenings. Usually there’s just a trickle, if any from the jaded press. Not this time.

The coming-of-age drama about two 14-year-old boys who befriend a mysterious stranger (McConaughey) on a deserted island just off the Mississippi (it was shot in Arkansas) and form a unique relationship even as he turns out to be wanted for murder, is a beautifully shot, directed and acted American film. I found echoes of Tom Sawyer, Stand By Me and Shane in this impressive work. In fact one of the boys even has a “Shane” moment when he cries out Mud’s name. In addition to terrific performances from all the adults it features remarkable work from Tye Sheridan whose character Ellis is at the center of the story, and Jacob Lofland making his film debut as his best friend, Neckbone. Sheridan incidentally is only 15 but this is his second competition film in Cannes. He played Steve in last year’s Palme d’Or winner, The Tree Of Life. In fact one of that film’s producers, Sarah Green, is also a Mud producer and recommended him for the role. It’s a great performance for an actor at any age.

As the second deep south movie set around a body of water to premiere here in the last two days it is interesting to see the wildly different visions of the region and relationships from Nichols and Lee Daniels who directed the steamy southern potboiler The Paperboy which featured another starry cast also including McConaughey. In fact at this morning’s press conference one Greek journalist stood up to say McConaughey’s career-stretching roles here make him one of the Cannes Fest’s “revelations” this year. It is the actor’s first visit to Cannes and he’s clearly choosing more challenging, indie-style projects than the romantic studio comedies he was trapped in for so long. When I talked to him at the after-party for Paperboy he agreed his career is headed in a different, more exciting direction. He also was blown away by the applause at the end of The Paperboy after Thursday night’s official premiere (unlike the press screening which barely had any – and some boos). Cannes Festival director Thierry Fremaux told people associated with the film that (despite some blistering reviews) it received the longest sustained applause of any film in Cannes this year (clocked at 16 minutes, far ahead of every other film to date and comparable to what Drive got last year). “I have never done any stage work so to hear all that applause and take it in was a completely different experience for me. I’ve never had that before,” McConaughey told me. He better get used to it because I believe there will be a lot more where that came from after Mud’s World Premiere tonight.

Related: Cannes Twittering About The Paperboy As All-Star Cast Hits Town

At the press conference Nichols, who won last year’s Critics Week prize for Take Shelter only to be invited to the big competition this year, explained that for him the one thematic tie or thread to the movie is romantic love (Mud’s troubles begin with his idealistic undying passionate love for Witherspoon’s less than pure character). “The best tool I had in holding it together is the character of the boy, Ellis. I put it all through his eyes. He’s a boy desperately searching for a version of love that works,” he said noting that all the adults around him certainly don’t have that level of ideal love in their lives. “In love you get banged up and bruised up but for some reason you go after it again.”

McConaughey said his title character is a real example of carrying unconditional love for this woman and through that (misguided in this case) perspective tries to help Ellis see it is not completely hopeless to find the real thing.

Witherspoon said she normally steers clear of supporting roles (she has just a handful of scenes) but couldn’t resist the script and was assured by Nichols that it really is an ensemble piece overall so she signed on. “I grew up with my brother in a creek with a dirt bike in Tennessee and it just felt like home, and you never get to see home on screen. There are very few films about the South that are accurate and authentic. I think this one is. It’s an amazing story about the discovery of love and I am so happy to be a part of it,” she said.

As for the boys, Nichols said it was remarkable to find boys who could hunt, fish, fall down a hole, get covered with snakes and just jump on a dirt bike and take off. He said both showed real talent even if they felt they were just playing themselves.

Nichols says he shot the movie in Super 35MM scope and worries that one day he will have to switch to digital because he says he doesn’t know if he can make a movie that way. “I like big sweeping movies and applying that to the place I come from,” he said. The Cannes screening was projected digitally though and ran into a snag about half way through when scenes overlapped and the picture became distorted. It was finally fixed after loud protests from the audience but even that snafu couldn’t break the spell of this film which actually feels like the perfect blend of commericial appeal and artistic integrity. Why don’t studios want this kind of thing anymore?

Nichols, asked for his cinematic inspirations, said he was no film expert but had a handful of favorites, almost all starring Paul Newman mentioning Butch Cassidy, Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler and Hud (rhymes with Mud?). I would add another Newman classic, The Long Hot Summer, another deep south film that uses the river in its opening sequence to great sprawling effect.

Twitter reactions after the screening were upbeat and positive but some speculated the film may be too “Hollywood” to win prizes here. Juries do tend to be a little more esoteric. The biggest prize for this fine film would be to find a good distributor who gets the idea that human stories can be a really nice antidote to superheroes and Battleships.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.