We learn in "The Mudge Boy" that you can calm a chicken by putting its head in your mouth. This raises fascinating questions.
1) Why would that calm the chicken? Does it remind her of being in the egg or something?
2) Why would you WANT to calm a chicken? What are the situations in which a rambunctious chicken is inappropriate?
3) How did someone discover this? What methods of poultry-soothing did people try that were unsuccessful before they finally hit on the effective one? Were farmers trying to sedate their hens by putting their feet under their armpits? The mind reels.
At any rate, these questions are only tangentially related to the film we're discussing, which is writer/director Michael Burke's "The Mudge Boy," a coming-of-age drama about grieving, sexuality and, yes, chickens.
In a small farm town lives Duncan Mudge (Emile Hirsch), an oddball teen-ager with a home-schooled look about him. His mother died recently, leaving him with his taciturn father, Edgar (Richard Jenkins), and no friends. Mom used to care for the chickens, so Duncan has assumed those duties, though Dad and townsfolk alike think it queer when Duncan adopts a particular hen (named Chicken) as a housepet.
Duncan and Edgar are dealing with the death in different ways. Edgar painfully moves her clothes out into the barn. Duncan, meanwhile, likes wearing the clothes sometimes and will occasionally carry on conversations with Mom, providing both voices. It's a little psycho, and a little "Psycho."
Awkwardly, Duncan tries to make friends with the crude-talking, beer-drinking boys in his town, who mock him as "Chicken Boy" but accept him into their circle when he provides beer money. Duncan -- a smart lad who likes to tell you what your name would be backwards (he's Nacnud Egdum) -- doesn't belong here, but that's the point. Sweet, innocent Duncan doesn't really belong anywhere.
His friendship with Perry (Thomas Guiry) becomes most pronounced. Perry, as foul-mouthed as any of them and a swaggering sexual braggart to boot, may have actual feelings of comaraderie with Chicken Boy, and Duncan certainly admires the bigger, handsomer boy.
It is somewhere in the second half of the film that the tone becomes tawdry, clumsily handling its themes of sexual awakening and introducing some elements apparently just for shock value. It is a good film, but it ought to have been better. Emile Hirsch is impressive as Duncan, and I liked Richard Jenkins as his compassionate but bewildered father, too. Mr. Mudge doesn't understand his son, but he doesn't pass judgment on him, either. There is love in his voice, even when his demeanor is gruff or passionless. It's a central relationship, and a nice one.
There are no subtitles and no alternate language tracks.
VIDEO: The widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is not anamorphic, and there's some pixelation and edge-enhancement that renders it less than perfect. It's not hard to watch or anything, but people observant of such things will surely notice the lack of sharpness.
AUDIO: A standard digital stereo mix, and good enough for our purposes.
EXTRAS: There are trailers for four other Strand Releasing titles, but the only real extra is an audio commentary by writer/director Michael Burke.
Burke's narration is organized and informative, particularly if you're interested in making films. This was his first feature, and he explains a lot about how certain shots -- even "basic" ones -- were accomplished, as well as his motivation in including certain scenes or bits of dialogue as they relate to character development or plot progression.
(Watching a movie with scenes set in a cow barn, you don't think about the logistics, but Burke reminds you: Your crew has to drag cables through hay and cow dung, and lighting the place sufficiently isn't exactly easy, either.)
One minor, amusing point: Burke says early on that "The Mudge Boy" is an expansion of a short film he made called "Fishbelly White." He tells us that film is on the "Mudge Boy" DVD ... but it isn't. Whoops.
"The Mudge Boy" premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, played at a couple festivals thereafter (mostly gay-and-lesbian-themed fests), and got a minor, unenthusiastic release in New York and L.A. in May 2004. (It went on to gross a whopping $62,000.) Then it disappeared.
It's a risky film, to be sure, and it doesn't entirely pay off. But it uses such unusual details to tell a story that is ultimately very relatable and "normal" that it's worth a rental.
(Note: Most of the "movie review" portion of this article comes from the review I wrote when the movie was released theatrically. I have re-watched the film in the course of reviewing the DVD, however.)