Director Jeff Nichols has built upon each film he's given us since his striking 2007 debut "Shotgun Stories." 2011's "Take Shelter" added deeper atmospheric considerations to an already adept handling of character relationships on screen in ways few artists this early in their careers seem to manage. "Mud," screening tonight at the Sundance Film Festival, is a masterful combination of both stews that rings a storybook note owing as much to Gary Paulsen as to Mark Twain, and with more on its mind than perhaps anything the director has offered so far.
The project's early film school seeds are a good reason for that thoughtfulness, springing from the mind of a young man stung by a failed relationship who set out to work through ideas of romance and the complexities of love so many years ago (stay tuned for an interview expanding on that later in the fest). But Nichols roots the enterprise in a world of Southern lore that speaks to an undercurrent of magical realism in his film; boats in trees, a unique community of river dwellers, it is a singular sense of place. And from the coming-of-age point of view of a young man, surely a surrogate for the director's former self, that atmosphere finds ample thematic footholds.