Emile Hirsch certainly is his own man. Yes, he did Speed Racer, that awful Wachowski Brothers kids spectacle; and the lowest common denominator doesn’t get much lower than Girl Next Door, but you have to give him credit for much of his other work. No matter what you think of the idealistic existentialism of Into The Wild, Hirsch’s performance was truly remarkable. And Imaginary Heroes, the 2004 comedy/drama starring Jeff Daniels and Sigourney Weaver, made a lasting impression on me as well.
Granted, one of those impressions was that Hirsch is one of the most attractive Young Leonardos on the scene, and I admit that was one of the main reasons why I recently caught his 2003 movie The Mudge Boy. Still, I wouldn’t count out the fact that – Racer and Girl notwithstanding – he has shown a penchant for choosing roles that doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into the box made for prettyboys like him, to explain why I was drawn to this movie. Trusted with a script that, though interesting in principle, feels a little forced and sketchy, Hirsch already then showed an ability to make his characters more interesting than they probably merited. In the hands of a lesser actor, Chris McCandless of Wild could have been easy to dismiss as a naive and self-absorbed idealist, but Hirsch manages to slowly melt our mental defense mechanisms. Likewise, his Duncan Mudge in The Mudge Boy might have been considered merely a collection of quirks and deep-rooted emotions, were it not for the sense of unpredictability and vulnerability that Hirsch’s performance exudes. That’s not to say he always succeeds at giving a sense of clear direction to this somewhat unfocused movie, but at least he keeps us interested.
Duncan Mudge is an insecure teenager who lives on a farm with his father. Duncan’s insecurities, ranging from sexual identity to a more general sense of social awkwardness (manifested in a somehat disturbing relationship with his pet chicken), alienates him from his father, and he also struggles to be accepted as any more than an outcast by his local peers. Over time however, Duncan strikes a friendly relationship with Perry (Tom Guiry), – a guy hardened by his abusive father – a relationship that quickly gets complicated because Perry doesn’t not know how to react to his obvious attraction to Duncan. It’s an open question whether this is meant to be primarily a gay movie, or if instead it’s a movie about breakdown in communication and the hardships of rural America (or a combination of both), but my sense is that the Duncan/Perry storyline is the central point to the story.
I’m not arguing that each and every detail of the story should be spelled out with unmistakable clarity, but no matter which storyline is supposed to be the overarching one, I felt that this movie somehow failed to make a connection to me as a viewer. Even though Hirsch’s performance is impressive, both his and Tom Guiry’s characters remain too sketchy to form an emotional bond with me. It could be interesting to delve into Perry’s conflicted feelings, but mostly he remains just Duncan’s important yet underdeveloped (love?) interest. The same holds true for Duncan himseld. He seems like an extraordinary complex young man, but throughout this movie we mainly get to know him through his quirks (his naivete, his fondness for women’s clothes, his love for his chicken), without any real investigation into what made him feel this way, all despite Hirsch’s best efforts otherwise. Therefore, the cathartic moment near the end doesn’t feel quite so cathartic after all. I’m not saying that writer/director Michael Burke uses his lead character’s quirks solely for emotional or entertainment value, but his story still feels like it’s missing something.
From some of the criticism I’ve read of The Mudge Boy, it seems like many people have been irked by the sexual aspect of it. I can’t say I was, though there is a very unpleasant rape scene in there. But having seen Jamie Bell in Hallam Foe (titled Mister Foe in its American theatrical release), I know that one of the most important things you have to do when you’re telling a story about oedipal hangups, cross-dressing and general quirkiness, is to make absolutely sure we know and understand enough about the characters to not simply dismiss them as nothing like us. You should still watch The Mudge Boy for the talent and sexiness that is Emile Hirsch, or even to see if you can get a better grasp of it than I could, but if you’re going to see only one movie about oedipal hangups, cross-dressing and general quirkiness this year, I still recommend Hallam Foe.