The Mudge Boy
Opens Fri., May 7, at Varsity
This 2003 Sundance prizewinner is a film that leaves you deeply disturbed. After you see it, you may find yourself giving wide berth to groups of teenage boys, because the pack of townies in Mudge is terribly realistic—and just plain old terrible. The Mudge boy, 14-year-old Duncan (Emile Hirsch from The Girl Next Door), is a gentle and slightly bizarre only child who is often the target of the rural Vermont teens' ridicule and cruelty. Anyone who's been through junior high school will cringe on his behalf.
The bullies only compound Duncan's other problems. His mother died very suddenly, and we can tell how close they were—and how troubled he really is—when Duncan mimics her voice at the breakfast table and wears her fur coat to bed. He's also got a thing for her pet chicken. Duncan's father, played with perfect restraint by Richard Jenkins, is a man of few words and very little patience for his son's vaguely effeminate behavior. He unwittingly contributes to his son's persecution by encouraging his friendship with Perry, the worst of the townies, who's pretty damn troubled himself.
Hirsch is like a pudgier and younger Leonardo DiCaprio, and there's something Gilbert Grape–esque about Mudge. Long shots of tall grass and wildflowers hint at Duncan's innocence; the sparse but affecting dialogue makes the film a powerful character study. In a more- perfect world, Mudge would air as an after-school special or in health-ed classes. Without being cloying or reductive, it addresses sexuality, nature-versus- nurture, and gender roles with a somber intelligence you wouldn't expect from the setting—or from a movie co-starring a chicken. (R) LAURA CASSIDY
Opens Fri., May 7, at Metro
Why, just days before its release, did the studio shorten the title of this new film from the original Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself? Presumably, in order to sell it on the charm of its perversely perky suicidal protagonist and de-emphasize its buzz-killing gloomy theme. Either way, it remains both perky and gloomy, which will outrage those who take suicide seriously, bum out those up for entertainment, and please a niche audience that craves a pint of misery cut with a shot of elfin whimsy.
Our Glaswegian hero, Wilbur (Jamie Sives), is more than half in love with easeful death—he's a positive slut for it. Pills, blades, asphyxiation, drowning, hanging—he's like Bud Cort in Harold and Maude, only without the pop-eyed glare and gift for deadpan comedy. Sives' pan is only half-dead; it fitfully twitches with the emotion of peevish irritation. Wilbur hates it that he keeps blowing his attempts at self-annihilation. Then he gets stuck in group therapy with a counselor (Julia Duffy) so overcome by his alleged sexual magnetism that she licks his ear. He rudely spurns her, and anyone with a pro-life agenda, until Alice (Shirley Henderson) comes into his life.
Or rather, into his older brother Harbour's life. Harbour (Adrian Rawlins), a kind soul and safe harbor, is forever rescuing Wilbur from his latest stab at death, and he's happy to rescue Alice from single-mom loneliness. She and her wise-beyond-her-years daughter move in, and pretty soon everybody's in love with everybody until jealousy and cancer get added to the family's list of woes.
All of this happens in an oddly offhand fashion. The melodrama is muffled, emotions downplayed, and dialogue muttered in often incomprehensible Scottish accents accompanied by a shrugging delivery. The style resembles Bill Forsyth, or rather Forsyth while lapsing into a deep coma, an effect intensified by the glum Glasgow setting. In its drifty plot, low-key romantic couplings, and wry sense of humor, it more closely resembles Danish Dogma director Lone Scherfig's breakthrough art-house hit, Italian for Beginners. But here her plot drift is more listless, the romance less romantic, and the humor more muted. Italian suited her better than this sullen Scottish murk. (R) TIM APPELO