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.
B- (1 hr., 30 min.; )