20 July 2004 | Chris Knipp
An unusual boy
The Mudge Boy is about teenage sexuality in a rural setting. It reeks of Inde: the opening shots of somebody chased off a road even seem clipped from The Station Agent. However, its mix of B horror movie baddies and sensitive mama's boy, if never resolved, still is different from either set of formulas. A fine performance by Emile Hirsh as the `boy,' Duncan Mudge, is sufficient reason to watch this movie and make it stick in the mind. It's a neat trick Hirsh carries off to make his character come across as weird, but also nice, nice looking, and sociable. The young actor has a quality River Phoenix also notably had of being able to seem two places at once and uncomfortable (but smooth) at both ingratiating, yet disgusted; or humiliated, yet pleased. It's quite a complex and able performance and one hopes it heralds more good things to come from Hirsh, who also starred in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.
Duncan, who's about sixteen, misses his recently deceased mom, to whom he was unusually close. He shows their closeness now by liking to wear her clothes on the sly at home. Duncan tends the chickens while his father does the heavier farm work alone. The boy goes everywhere with his mom's favorite white chicken, which he calms by putting its head in his mouth (now that's what I call acting!). Is he gay or is he just an unusual boy? He hasn't developed quite enough for there to be a definitive anwer to that question by the end of this pleasingly quirky film. The Mudge Boy isn't about that well-worked theme, coming of age, but about trying to remain oneself. It's certain that Duncan isn't your standard husky farm boy.
The bunch of young heavy metal guys (with gals) in their pickup truck, who approach periodically with B-movie menace, aren't all so macho themselves. One is pretty and longhaired. Another one, Perry (Tom Guiry), Duncan is kind of sweet on and Perry, who talks so dirty and goes after the girls, still by silent consent is Duncan's best buddy. The experienced child actor Guiry (who was Brendan Harris in Mystic River) strikes a neat balance between macho strutting (which involves some extremely blunt, graphic sexual language even by current standards) and an insecurity that makes sense when we learn his dad is abusive. Duncan's own dad is shut down but also needy in the absence of his wife and affectionate enough toward his son to disapprove but marginally tolerate his peculiarities.
Though The Mudge Boy may wind up being classified as some kind of gay coming of age movie, this isn't an environment in which a "coming out" process is possible or even desirable. First of all Duncan may be odd but never seems innocent. Nothing about Perry surprises him and he seems to have no awakening to come to or audience to share it with. If he's gay, which isn't quite a sure thing yet, who is he going to dramatically come out to? Perry knows Duncan's proclivities and exploits them in a brutal `loss of virginity' sequence, but maybe Duncan is just special. It's the movie's ambiguity that makes it unique -- though some scenes, such as Duncan's off-key solo at church, are too clumsy and indeterminate to make sense.
The trouble is that the movie never seems to know too well where it's going and its pacing drowns in rural torpor. The stakes aren't defined: it's never clear if it's Duncan himself who's in danger or just his pet chicken, and the writing doesn't provide enough of a progression toward anything other than the consensual rape scene and a final moment of tenderness between father and son. When Duncan tells Perry in front of the other truck crew `I'm not a faggot!,' is that just because the word is derogatory or is he really not gay and aware of that? Nothing has been resolved, but we've been taken to an interesting, uncommon place.