Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Mud" (2012) vs. "The Way, Way Back" (2013)

Two movies that are remarkably similar in basic plot: somewhat shy, socially awkward boy on the threshold of growing up, with no good father-figure, navigating life and trying to find his place, searching for meaning, finally meets a man that he can emulate, look up to and admire. Why did I love one and hate the other? Why is one a 5/5 stars, and the other 1 star (or, actually, 0, if that's allowed...) What did one get so right that the other got so wrong? Let me count the ways...

Allow me to introduce our young stars: as I already mentioned, our 14-year-old heroes are both a little shy and awkward. They are quiet, serious, intelligent, sensitive and deep-thinkers. 

Here's Liam James, as Duncan from The Way, Way Back and Tye Sheridan as Ellis from Mud

At the beginning of The Way, Way Back we see Duncan in the very back of his mother's new boyfriend's station wagon. The boyfriend, Trent, played by Steve Carrell, asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10.. Duncan eventually answers with "6" to which Trent counters with "3." He then prompts him to improve on that number while he stays at the beach house that summer while Duncan shoves his ear-buds back in to escape.

At the beginning of Mud we meet Ellis, driving around and selling fish with his dad, who seems to be a bit gruff and callous. After selling the fish, Ellis goes with his best friend, Neckbone, to scout out an old boat that was deposited on an island in the upper branches of a tree by a flood a long time ago. I didn't connect with Ellis as well as Duncan because it took almost the whole movie for me to begin to understand him. I felt for Duncan and had a connection with him in the first 5 minutes. None of the characters from Mud really resonated with me at all. That's 1.

Note: Spoilers ahead! If you haven't seen either of these movies, and you're interested in seeing them, I suggest that you not read on. Here are my sister's spoiler-free reviews for Mud and The Way, Way Back from her blog, How To Watch A Movie.

Enter the new father-figure/role model/mentor. Duncan in The Way, Way Back gets Sam Rockwell in the form of irresponsible water-park manager Owen. He's goofy and a bit immature, but sees that Duncan needs him  and needs an escape from his "family," so he gives him a job for the summer. His acceptance and encouragement helps Duncan grow, and escape his despondency. Owen also matures through the movie, and by the end has become a bit more mature and responsible. Whatever his flaws, he truly cares about Duncan, and was a good influence.

Ellis in Mud isn't quite so fortunate in his father-figure/role model/mentor. Matthew McConaughey plays Mud, a murderer and a fugitive from the law, living in the boat up in the trees. He seems nice enough, the murder was for the sake of his girlfriend, anyway, and he convinces Ellis and Neckbone to help him by promising to give them the abandoned boat once he leaves. As Ellis discovers later in the movie, Mud was just using them as messengers and for supplies, he didn't really care about them. He comes to care for them later, but so far as I see it, his influence on Ellis was only bad. He made him a thief, a liar, and guilty of harboring a fugitive. And he even broke his promise about the boat. That's 2.

Duncan and Susanna at the water park.
Both boys and both men have their own love interests. In The Way, Way Back, Owen has Caitlin, his assistant manager at the water-park. She's a bit frustrated at his continued immaturity and irresponsibility, but loves him anyway and tries to motivate him to be better. Duncan is attracted to the beautiful Susanna, and she is consistently nice to him in spite of his awkwardness, which also helps him come out of his shell. I found both relationships to be sweet, and being a die-hard romantic, I'm happy that neither relationship really ended, they are left with the potential for an eventual happily-ever-after. More so in the case of the adults than the teens, but still a cute ending.

May Pearl and Ellis on their first "date."
In Mud, the adult relationship is Mud and his girlfriend, Juniper, the girlfriend that he was willing to murder someone for. Juniper is revealed to be unfaithful, she leaves Mud for other guys, but then comes back to him, and over and over again, he takes her back. Mud set up this rendezvous point, intending to take her with him when he escapes the law. Ellis, apparently a hopeless romantic, tries to help reunite them. He also has his first romantic experience with older girl May Pearl. She encourages and strings him along, and then turns on him, dumps him and makes fun of him in front of her friends. Juniper also leaves Mud again for another guy. That's 3.

Cold, selfish, annoying and conflicted Juniper from Mud.
 From all this, you could see why a romantic like myself would find Mud tragic and unpalatable, with an unfortunately pessimistic viewpoint about true love, but that's not all. Besides unhappy endings in Mud, and the poor character that Mud is, and how unsuitable he is to be a role model for Ellis, and the fact that I didn't connect with any of the characters in Mud, I think the absolute worst part is the lack of change and character growth in Ellis. Perhaps the whole reason I didn't like him is because he doesn't seem to change over the movie, or if anything, he gets a little worse. (After all, he started off an honest kid, and Mud turned him into a thief and liar.) At the end of the movie, Ellis is at the new apartment that he and his mom have just moved to after his parents separated, and he sees some older girls going into an apartment across the street, and smiles. Really, Ellis? You didn't learn your lesson about older girls?

Ultimately, I think that Mud sends the message that life is hard, true love doesn't exist, and no one is really a good person. I can agree that life is sometimes hard, and no one is really a good person (without Christ), but I don't like to watch depressing entertainment and I definitely disagree on the point that true love doesn't exist. The hard parts of life and bad characters can serve to sweeten the good characters and happy parts of life, so I'm not saying that they don't have a place in a movie, but when there are no good characters, and no cheerful sides to the story, I'm not going to enjoy it. Mud had no redeeming aspects for me, and I didn't enjoy it at all. Watching it was about as enjoyable as sitting and staring at real mud. That's 4.

Sweet special moment as Owen comforts and encourages Duncan.
The Way, Way Back, in contrast, is a great story about a boy growing up, with some hard times, painful moments and bad characters, but the contrast is there - Duncan also has sweet moments, encounters good characters, and in the end, is improved by the experience. He grows, and changes, and by the end of the movie, you feel that Duncan is going to be just fine. The messages I get are that there is hope for love, there are some jerks in the world, but there are also kind people, and life may be hard, but hard times can strengthen you, if you'll let them.

I look for hope, real love, and Christ-likeness in every movie. The Way, Way Back has its flaws, to be sure, but I found in it what I like to see. After seeing The Way, Way Back, I found Mud to be a waste of my time. I'd rather just watch The Way, Way Back again, instead.

Have you seen either or both of these movies, or maybe you just read the spoilers? What do you think? Agree or disagree with my analysis?


  1. Thank for sharing your opinion about these two movies. Me either, I dont really enjoy the movie that couldn't show the true message. Well, The Way, Way Back on my list now.

    You are really good for judging :)
    Thanka for your message to me yesterday. It really made my day, I'm speecles to write back haha :D

    hugs to you my friend.

  2. I know I can't change your opinion on much, if anything, and maybe it was just because Mud was a more subtle movie, (and not your kind of movie to boot) but I think you missed the point -- Mud is about hope. And true love. There can be a lot of evidence suggesting the non-existence of something, but it only take one little thing to prove them all wrong! In spite of everything Ellis witnesses that tells him that love is a lie, at the end of the film he still believes and hopes it's possible, (with the help of encouragement from Mud by the way -- when he says "you're a good man, Ellis, and if you find a girl half as good as you are, you're gonna be alright" (alright alright ;) )) There certainly isn't any good *romance* in Mud, but I'll definitely argue that there is at least one great example of self-sacrificing love (spoilers) Mud risks certain death by jumping in the stream full of cottonmouths to pull Ellis out (end spoilers) -- and that doubles as a moment of redemption for Mud as well. He wasn't by any means a good role model (no one could do the job as well as Sam Rockwell!) but he still helps Ellis mature in a positive way, just not by example. And Ellis helps Mud become a better man as well. And sure, he may not have cared for the boys more than himself at first, but why would he? Besides, he always cared enough to try and keep them out of trouble, and he didn't use them; they helped him willingly, and knew what they were getting into. He never tricked them into helping.

    1. (Continued. Did you know that comments can't exceed 4,096 characters? I do now.)

      It's too bad you didn't identify with Ellis. Eventually you understood him, yet still didn't identify with him? I'm thinking you still don't fully understand him. To me he's actually a better character than Duncan. (I know, it's crazy, but you're the one who started comparing these movies... it's not my fault!) The main reason we identify with Duncan is his awkwardness, and his trying to find confidence and a place where he is comfortable. Anyone can identify with that. Ellis' most common identifiable trait (or one that the film focuses most obviously on) I suppose is that he's a hopeless romantic, but besides that he has a lot more good qualities -- a strong sense of right, which he is willing to fight (sometimes literally) to defend, and bravery and kindness. Duncan spends most his movie sulking and trying make his own life better (he's no less likeable for it though since that's what the film is about); Ellis though, even in the midst of personal crisis his main goal is to help someone who probably doesn't deserve it. He does lie and break the law for Mud, but firstly, as I said, Mud didn't force him to do anything. Secondly, he regrets the stealing, and at first blames Mud for it (like you!) but later he says he didn't mean it, because he realized it was his own fault, and he takes responsibility. It was a mistake, but the way he handled it after shows a good deal of character to me. I identify with Duncan because I am like him, and I identify with Ellis because I want to be like him. Duncan's growth is certainly more obvious, but that doesn't mean Ellis' has to be equally as obvious, right?

      I think both these movies are fantastic, honest, and very well-made. I like them both almost equally as well, but really, they're two very different movies, coming from two completely different angles about two 14-year-old boys in very different situations who have grown in maturity by the end of the movie with the (direct or indirect) help of an older man. That's a far as the similarities go. If you're looking for another version of The Way Way Back in Mud, then you're looking for the wrong thing. But, if you're open to it, and willing to dig a little deeper, into more... muddier... soil, I guarantee you'd find themes of hope, love, Christ-likeness, and characters strengthened by hardships in the mud... of Mud.

      (How's that for a dramatic ending? :D)

      Wow, look at that -- I gave you a whole blog post in reply!