Oof, this one hits you by surprise. But at the same time, you sort of know exactly what’s going to happen. Don’t worry, I’ll come back to this later on…
The Mudge Boy (Michael Burke, 2003) tells the story of 14-year-old Duncan and his struggle to find himself and his people in non-descript rural America. As they both mourn the recent death of Duncan’s mother, his father frequently derides him for his queer-adjacent strange behaviour: he wears his mother’s clothes in secret; he is physically weak and has trouble with manual farm labour; and he is shy, with few (if any) friends. Perhaps most bizarrely, he carries around a chicken everywhere he goes (coming for your gig, Miss Fame) and calms her down by putting her head in his mouth ー to the bemusement of everyone around him. We follow his emotional journey with one volatile town bully, Perry, as they move towards something akin to friendship, or maybe more…! (You know what this blog is about, right?)
Biggest Gay Mood: wearing your mother’s fur coat to bed
The acting in this film is, at times, questionable. Emile Hirsch does a decent job some of the time, but a lot of the dialogue feels odd and forced. Like the rest of the film, he finds his strength in moments of silence. Plus, his physicality (see: face twitch) and facial expressions do, for the most part, convincingly portray Duncan’s specific brand of queer teen awkwardness, particularly in moments of crisis and embarrassment.
Richard Jenkins is more successful in his portrayal of the inept father who can neither process his emotions nor communicate effectively with his child. Overall, fragile masculinity permeates the environment and is the driving force behind all of Duncan’s torment. As an outcast who doesn’t prescribe to stereotypically masculine ideals, he is shunned and mocked. With no healthy channel or space for the exploration of his sexuality, let’s just say he doesn’t have the best time.
The use of space in The Mudge Boy is quite engaging. As mentioned, the action takes place in non-descript rural America, and the cinematography sometimes, though not often enough, takes advantage of the beautiful landscape. As the friendship develops, Perry and Duncan find secret spaces to bond, less inhibited by -though not completely free from- outside judgment. Clad in white Y fronts after swimming in a river ー surely by now a cliche of teenage homosexual discovery ー Perry shows Duncan his hideaway under a railway bridge, inviting him into his space as a sign of trust and openness.
Later, however, spaces they occupy in secret turn sinister; at the same time, night falls and darkness descends, the blue and grey lighting reflecting troubling and ultimately just sad moments between the two boys.
The plot, driven as it is by the space in which it exists, starts off with such promise. Ultimately, this film shows its age: I found the main twist, and the way it was treated and reacted to, deeply problematic. Overall, queerness is revealed, developed and expressed alongside multifarious trauma. Worse still, no one is ever held accountable. There may be a very affecting emotional breakthrough and climax, but a lot is left unresolved – and not in a fun, artsy way. I was left confused, traumatised and hurt. This is where my introduction comes in. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect a happy ending, but there didn’t seem to be a lesson or a moral in the emotional abyss. In fact, if there was a lesson in there, it was morally corrupt. As Moira MacDonald said in The Seattle Times when the film came out, “it needs a sense of transcendence, a reason to endure its sadness.” Without this reason, the film falls flat.
Top Tip: Maybe avoid this one if you’re in an emotionally fragile place.
Frustratingly, The Mudge Boy’s ultimate setbacks really overtake its more subtle advantages: lightness early on is tainted by later darkness, once again seemingly without a purpose. If you want emotional trauma, then step right in, but otherwise this film’s sensitive merits are violently overwhelmed.
Header image via Netflix (screenshot)