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.

Guy pegged the film as "familiar" when he saw it at Cannes, and that it is. I don't like the pejorative, though, because this is less a film out to surprise than to marinate...

Hang on. You know what? I'm gonna step out of bounds for a moment and just say that I'm in love with this film, full stop. Digging and figuring out why and conveying that kind of doesn't feel right. I'm not so much excited to convey my enthusiasm for it than to savor my enthusiasm for it. It's one of those films. It landed perfectly for me as a dissection of what romance is -- A joke? A Godsend? A dead end? A savior? -- And I've just never seen these considerations so wonderfully explored on so many different levels.

This is powerful thematic work, every single moment of the film being very much about these ideas, and I hope it finds new life as Roadside Attractions looks to re-launch it here in advance of its April theatrical bow. I'm very much reminded of my reaction to Joe Carnahan's "The Grey" last year, and indeed, this is a film I can easily see sticking around in my top 10 for the next 12 months.

Not since David Wooderson has Matthew McConaughey given us a character so magnetic, so charismatic. His Mud is full of wisdom, lies, romance, remorse, honor, disgrace. He is a treasure trove of virtues, each of them valuable, even when -- indeed, especially when -- they conflict. Because that's the story lurking between the lines of the film: the messiness of life, and the promise of redemption around every corner.

McConaughey has a hell of a year coming up, this after already dishing out a stellar 2012. With "Mud," "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Dallas Buyers Club" (assuming it releases this year), the actor has another few shots on the awards season goal. And there's plenty of goodwill left in the tank. But I'd like to light the fuse right here and now for his work in this film. It's his finest performance to date, Oscar-worthy on every level.

And Nichols, truly gifted with actors, gets stellar performances across the board. Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson all shine, and even fleeting work from Michael Shannon and the great Joe Don Baker leaves you wanting more. But at the center of the whole enterprise is a pair of child actor performances from Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland that grounds the film and would have made or broken the whole thing.

Largely absent from and a bit of a cipher in "The Tree of Life" if there was any real promise there, Sheridan owns this turf. It is one of the great performances from an actor his age, open, receptive, so much going on beneath the surface at times, yet so elegant in its simplicity at others. If McConaughey manages any awards season traction, Sheridan deserves to be right there with him.

And of course, Nichols' crew deserves major commendation. Adam Stone's photography, Richard Wright's production design, Julie Monroe's film editing, Will Files' soundscape and, certainly, David Wingo's original score, are all necessary building blocks for what this film is.

So there. I'm over the moon. Sometimes you just don't want to bog down in why. This one found a place inside me and it's staying there. I can just tell. And I hope when it comes around your way, you feel similarly.

"Mud" receives its North American debut tonight at The MARC theater in Park City. It opens April 26 in limited release.