The Beach Boys’ feelgood jukebox standard, ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ is played twice in ‘Take Shelter’ director Jeff Nichols’s third feature, amplifying the sense of sunkissed nostalgia present throughout this amiable but over-familiar coming-of-age story – it’s not set in the 1960s, but save a stray mobile phone or two, you could be forgiven for thinking it is. Drawing on a rich tradition of classical American storytelling that runs from Mark Twain to ‘Shane’ to ‘Stand By Me,’ Nichols adopts a 14-year-old boy’s perspective for this affecting tale of innocence lost and grace gained over one woozy Arkansas summer. After the terse, teasing ambiguities of ‘Shotgun Stories’ and ‘Take Shelter,’ however, it’s disappointing just how conventional the director’s latest is, its Hollywood sensibility building throughout the narrative to a ludicrous climactic shootout.
Like onetime indie darling David Gordon Green (who has since graduated to less reputable mainstream fare) Nichols cut his teeth at the famed North Carolina School of the Arts, and the connection between the two men has never been clearer than in the seductive opening stretches of this film. The spirit of Green’s ‘All the Real Girls’ and, in particular, ‘Undertow’ hangs over scenes establishing the character of Ellis – played by the highly promising Tye Sheridan, whom you may recognise as one of the young brothers in ‘The Tree of Life’. An independent adolescent from a troubled home, he’s given to exploring the less populated stretches of his riverside town with his best friend, the splendidly named Neckbone (Jacob Lofland).
Their harmless scouting turns dangerous, however, when they encounter an abandoned boat sheltering Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a convicted killer on the run from the law. When the boys agree to help shelter him, with Ellis acting as a go-between for Mud and his weary girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the community gradually closes in on them, taking this evocative mood piece into more generic thriller territory. When Sam Shepard shows up as a skilled ex-CIA marksman, we sense things aren’t going to end subtly.
It’s a broader, starrier project than either of Nichols’s previous films, and he handles the transition to the major league with relative confidence, conjuring serene widescreen imagery with his regular cinematographer Adam Stone, and coaxing fine work from both the names and newcomers in the cast. (Regular Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon, however, is wasted in a dispensable role as Neckbone’s feckless uncle.) Still, he comes badly unstuck in this overlong film’s muddled, pandering last act, forcing closure with a surfeit of endings. There’s an argument to be made that there’s a calculated degree of cliché to this sweet, Southern-fried fairytale, that Nichols is paying tribute here to his more mainstream inspirations. Nothing wrong with that, but here’s hoping these urges aren’t leading him into the territory of David Gordon Green’s ‘Your Highness’.