Sensitive direction and a touching performance from Emile Hirsch in the title role help counter some dramatic naivete and awkward, at times unintentional, humor in “The Mudge Boy.” Set in rural Vermont, the drama deals with love, grief, sexuality and the stigma of being an outsider. Shepherded through the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab and expanded by writer-director Michael Burke from his 1998 short “Fishbelly White,” the ultimately affecting Showtime presentation seems an unlikely candidate for theatrical play, but should resonate with cable viewers.
The sudden death of his mother from a heart attack results in a communications breakdown between tender-hearted teenage misfit Duncan Mudge (Hirsch) and his stoically unyielding father (Richard Jenkins). Duncan seeks comfort in his pet chicken and his mother’s clothes, tooling around town on her bicycle. His weird behavior earns him the derision of the local boys and the incomprehension of his father, who attempts to smother his son’s peculiarities by pushing him into farm labor. But the boy’s need for acceptance and warmth remain unsatisfied.
Duncan strikes up a tentative friendship with Perry (Thomas Guiry), a rugged farmhand conflicted by feelings of suppressed sexuality. Responding to Duncan’s softness, Perry enjoys the boy’s company when the two are alone together, but seems uncomfortable when they are part of a larger group of rowdy town youths, who call Duncan “Chicken Boy.”
When Perry’s sexual desire overcomes him, Duncan is pushed into dangerous territory, his responses confused by emotional hunger. But when the older boy betrays his friendship to guard his own secret, Duncan reacts with a dramatic, violent gesture, the shocked aftermath of which draws him closer to his father in grief.
As Duncan increasingly reaches out to Perry for the connection he misses at home, Burke’s screenplay keeps an interesting ambiguity in play. The frisson between the boys is driven by both emotional and sexual needs, though the precise breakdown of feelings becomes clear only later, and to some degree is left open to interpretation.
Where the film runs into problems is in Duncan’s more outre behavior. Burke’s script knowingly mines the humor of adolescent awkwardness, but given that one of the most important of Duncan’s relationships is with his chicken — not the most dignified of animals — the line between poignant and ridiculous often blurs. In particular, Duncan’s habit of slipping the chicken’s head inside his mouth to calm the bird seems like sexual innuendo within a context in which gay sexuality figures prominently. Even clumsier is the revelation that his mother taught him the skill.
Despite some unenviable demands made on him, Hirsch (“The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” “The Emperor’s Club”) gives Duncan an unguarded vulnerability and sweetly trusting nature that ensure emotional investment in him. The young actor’s delicate looks strongly resemble those of a softer Joaquin Phoenix, or Leonardo DiCaprio circa “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Guiry and Jenkins both provide solid support in the other key roles.
Graced with a gentle, elegantly unobtrusive score, the drama is handsomely shot in peaceful rural settings, often from detached angles that underscore its melancholy mood. Burke’s debut may compromise some of its emotional truths with unintended amusement, but the film’s sincerity, humanity and compassion make it difficult to dismiss.