Mud feels like an adaptation of a young adult book, one that was unjustly snubbed for the Carnegie Medal and ended up falling into obscurity. Many other reviewers have tossed around Mark Twain comparisons, although that’s because the movie is about poor people living on the Mississippi (and is about two scamps who get into shenanigans). It’s much more Gary Paulsen or Jean Craighead George than Twain. It’s also a wonderful evocation of what it’s like to be a kid, and an story that’s quite fun. Rollicking, even.

Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland play Ellis and Neckbone (yep), two preteen best friends whiling away the summer in rural Arkansas. They discover a boat lodged in a tree on a remote island, and vow to make it their own, only to discover that there’s already someone living in it: a scraggly man known only as Mud (Matthew McConaughey). A fugitive from the law looking to reunite with his lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud strikes up a friendship with the boys, especially Ellis. He enlists their help to avoid the law and run away with Juniper, although they soon find that there’s more to his past than he’s letting on.

Director Jeff Nichols has a proven flair for capturing the local flavor of the south, and Mud feels like an authentic depiction of a fading way of life. The authorities are kicking out the people who live and work on the river, just one of many ways in which Ellis’s life seems to be in hopeless upheaval. His parents are separating and girls seem alien. It’s no wonder he becomes so taken with Mud, and remains devoted to helping the man even as it’s more and more plain that he’s not one to be admired.

McConaughey continues his amazing career resurgence here. Mud exudes both danger and filthy allure. He’s also an inveterate tall tale-teller and superstition buff, and McConaughey plays those aspects to perfection. Mud seems like a forty-year-old boy, living a boy’s greatest dream, one of total outlaw independence. And as he unpeels his layers and reveals deeper elements, McConaughey demonstrates remarkable nuance. He’s the “alrigh’ alrigh'” punchline no longer.

What stops McConaughey from running away with the movie are Sheridan and Lofland. They completely embody that pre-adolescent state where you still want nothing more than to make a tree fort, but the complexities of the adult world are beginning to seep in. I saw myself and my old friends in them, how we used to traipse through the woods behind our houses as kids.

There’s a solid cast propping up these three central performances. Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, and Joe Don Baker all make good with bit parts. Witherspoon, though, is given a rather thankless role. Juniper is the embodiment of the “she” in “she done him wrong,” and she’s emblematic of a troubling subtext that runs through the movie.

Mud is all about heartbreak. It’s not a subtle theme – almost every adult character delivers some kind of soliloquy on the subject to Ellis. And heartbreak, it seems, is the tool of the dread woman. It’s not just Juniper, whom we learn has toyed with Mud’s devotion to her again and again in the past, and who does so yet again over the course of the film. There’s also Ellis’s first crush, who picks up and dumps him just as quickly. It’s a very strange he-man-women-haters-club vibe. There is at least Paulson, playing Ellis’s mother, on the other side of the scale, but her goodness isn’t really enough to rectify the tone. Especially since she seems more idealized than anything else.

Mud is a great, old-fashioned yarn, albeit one with some problematic stuff running through it. And it climaxes in a shootout, which feels off from the kind of movie it establishes itself to be. But it made me want to grab a friend (or a dog) and set off on a boat down a river, before I remembered that I don’t know how to use a boat. It’s a film about childhood that’s honest about what childhood is like, indulging in the wonder without sugarcoating the less nostalgic bits.