CANNES - A funny thing happened during this morning’s introductory press screening of “Mud” – a snafu that would make an already nervous filmmaker clutch his forehead and represents an unusual malfunction in the well-oiled machine of the Cannes Film Festival.

A little over midway through the screening of Arkansas writer-director Jeff Nichols’ third feature, the digitally projected image was suddenly buried under a gaudy griddle of fluorescent green lines, before shots began to overlap and the sound veered out of sync. Swiftly corrected and rewound, the technical error didn’t harm anyone’s enjoyment of what turned out to be a robustly applauded Competition closer, but it did oddly highlight what had been bothering me about this enjoyable, evocative slice of contemporary American classicism: it was the only truly unanticipated moment of the film thus far.

To sling the word ‘familiar’ at “Mud,” a languid coming-of-age tale bathed in wild honey and late afternoon light, is really only half a criticism. To some extent, the film wants to you to recognize it: it’s steeped in a rich tradition of American boy-to-man storytelling, its earthy values usually pinned to the rural landscape, that runs from Mark Twain to “Stand By Me.” Both are valid – and, as the film reaches critics beyond the Croisette, sure to be inescapable – reference points for Nichols’s essentially modest but rather self-indulgently extended study of Southern masculinity in both its formative and corrupted states. 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), the film’s serious-minded but risk-favoring protagonist, is clearly constructed as a kind of modern-day Huckleberry Finn, from his river-dwelling explorer’s sense to his independent moral compass.

Nichols isn’t afraid to bind his narrative to such fixtures of American storytelling, not least because “Mud” is a celebration of certain universal rites of passage that can rarely be moved or bent. If the coming-of-age story seems especially vulnerable to cliché, that’s because there’s little they cover that isn’t immediately identifiable to those of us already – sigh – of age. Sometimes, growing up does come down to something as familiar as a first kiss or a first fight; sometimes, it is soundtracked (in our heads at least) with a musical montage. “Mud” nails such personal details with sweet specificity.

What’s disappointing about it, though, is that the director of a film as queasily questioning as “Take Shelter” – a thriller that provocatively threatened American domestic stability with its own protectiveness – seems here to be letting Hollywood supply the memories of his memory piece. An overblown, almost film-scuppering final act sets aside the subtler personal battles of its adolescent protagonist for broader, blander movie heroism, as the delicate, “Night of the Hunter”-echoing child-adult tensions of its woozily atmospheric first half fall prey to a hail of bullets and multiple happy endings. Like the old scriptwriting adage about not being able to place a gun in a story without eventually pulling the trigger, you can’t introduce Sam Shepard as a crusty ex-CIA marksman without letting him open fire at some point – but the film doesn’t much benefit from the payoff.

We’re introduced to Ellis on a typical summertime jaunt, escaping the house and rowing to an unpopulated river island with his best friend, the more skittish and perplexingly named Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), in tow. They’re in search of an abandoned boat allegedly tossed into the trees by a recently flood; they find it, but with it comes Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a convicted kille occupying the island as his hideout from the law. Despite Neckbone’s misgivings, Ellis agrees to help the shiftily charismatic fugitive engineer his escape, aiding the fixing of the boat and acting as a go-between for Mud and his burnt-out girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

Heeding neither Juniper’s warnings about Mud’s volatility nor some pretty pointed symbolism – neither the snake tattoo coiled around Mud’s arm nor the real-life serpents writhing in the waters suggest to him an influence to be avoided in this island garden of Eden – Ellis’s determined investment in this ill-qualified role model points to the child’s acceptance of un-ideal authority and compromised personal values, an adult realization fed in the background by his parents’ impending divorce.

It’s a touching arc, supported in empathetic if slightly dewy fashion by the David Gordon Green-style romanticism the film adopts at the outset – Nichols and Green both attended the North Carolina School of the Arts and have shared below-the-line collaborators, but the connection between them has never been so obvious. It’s dissatisfyingly arrested, then, when Mud’s more gung-ho escape becomes the dominant story motor, reducing Ellis to an enabling role and critically defusing any sense of moral consequence at play. Gender politics go to ruin as well, as the film patently sides with the paternal influences in the boy’s life, rather vaguely writing off its female characters – Witherspoon’s justifiably wary collaborator, Sarah Paulson as Ellis’s loving but divorce-initiating mother and Kristy Barrington as the high-school crush who’s happy just playing the field – as selfish obstacles to his plans.

Not as regionally flavorful as Nichols’ striking debut, nor as urgently ambiguous or socially nervy as “Take Shelter,” the often impressive “Mud” is the first of the director’s home-oriented dramas to come tempered with nostalgia – not just in the stories it references, but in the unobligated, paternalistic society it seemingly wishes to protect. (With a Beach Boys-bookended soundtrack and only fleeting glimpses of modern technology, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a period piece.) Sensitively performed across the board – Sheridan, who rather aptly also starred in the thematically companionable “The Tree of Life,” is a real find – and serenely shot by Adam Stone, it is, when not not examined too closely, unexpectedly comforting cinema after the silent alarm of Nichols’ previous film. That, however, is as far as its surprises go. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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