The Mudge Boy

Writer-director Michael Burke fleshed out his acclaimed 20-minute short "Fishbelly White" into this heartfelt feature about an adolescent farm boy grappling simultaneously with the loss of his beloved mother and his confused longing for an older boy. Left alone with his withdrawn father (Richard Jenkins) after his mother suffers a fatal heart attack, teenaged...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Writer-director Michael Burke fleshed out his acclaimed 20-minute short "Fishbelly White" into this heartfelt feature about an adolescent farm boy grappling simultaneously with the loss of his beloved mother and his confused longing for an older boy. Left alone with his withdrawn father (Richard Jenkins) after his mother suffers a fatal heart attack, teenaged Duncan Mudge (Emile Hirsch) sublimates his grief by tending to the chickens he and his mother raised together. His loneliness is compounded by the fact that his father barely acknowledges his presence and most of the townies think he's strange; they call him "Chicken Boy," "Pumpkin" or simply "The Mudge Boy." With his mother's shabby straw hat pulled low over his head and his favorite hen perpetually under his arm, Duncan does little to convince anyone that he's normal. Perry (Tom Guiry), however, appears to be an exception. Cut and bruised by his abusive father (George Woodard) and often smelling of the dung he shovels on his family's farm, Perry is sometimes the butt of his friends' jokes. But unlike Duncan, Perry fights back with his fists; perhaps that's why he's nicer to Duncan than the other boys, and becomes protective when they take the younger boy along on joyrides, using Duncan's money to buy beer and getting him drunk at field parties. Perry and Duncan spend afternoons together, but it's obvious that Duncan's attraction to Perry transcends the bounds of ordinary friendship, while Perry's feelings for his new friend are more ambiguous and not untainted by the violence he regularly experiences at home. Most expanded shorts are little more than a good idea stretched to the breaking point, then padded with filler. Burke's feature debut is a rare exception; "Fishbelly White," which won a Special Jury Prize at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, actually benefits from the longer format, which allows Burke to more fully explore his themes of grief and isolation rooted in violence and sexual difference. With a subtle, unobtrusive style that matches its quiet intonations, and careful characterization brought to life by an exceptionally good cast, the film exerts a grip on the viewer that holds firm all the way through to the its surprising finale.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: R
  • Review: Writer-director Michael Burke fleshed out his acclaimed 20-minute short "Fishbelly White" into this heartfelt feature about an adolescent farm boy grappling simultaneously with the loss of his beloved mother and his confused longing for an older boy. Left… (more)

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