It's 1974 and Dvir (Tomer Steinof), just about to turn twelve and entering his Bar Mitzvah year, lives on a Kibbutz in Israel with his mother and older brother. His father died some years earlier, but no one will tell Dvir anything other than that it was an accident. Kibbutzim, which began in earlier forms in response to oppression of Jewish population in Russia, was flourishing as a social system in the 1970s in Israel. The kibbutzim were founded on principles of socialist equality -- each person giving as much as he or she was able, and taking only what he or she needed. The members of the kibbutz provided everything the kibbutz needed to survive as a whole, and in return the kibbutz as a whole took care of the individual needs of its members. Kibbutzim were seen by many as social uptopias, and many seekers, both Jewish and not, came to the various kibbutzim looking for models on which to found similar communal intentional communities.
Dvir's mother, Miri (Ronet Yudkevitz) is fragile and mentally unstable, and Dvir does his best to look out for her during the limited time each day he's allowed to spend with her. We learn early on that Miri spent time in a sanatorium following her husband's death, and she's clearly never fully recovered. While in the sanatorium, she was taking a walk on the beach when she met a man named Stephan (Henri Garcin) -- the one-time Swiss Judo Champion -- with whom she has maintained a correspondence through the years.
Now Stephan is coming to the Kibbutz to visit Miri (this being a Kibbutz, though, she has to ask permission of the entire group just to have her boyfriend come out for a couple weeks). Stephan comes, and Dvir, resentful at first, soon learns to love Stephan for how kind he is to Miri and himself. He wants Stephan to stay forever and be his mother's savior, but when Stephan breaks the arm of another adult Kibbutz member while defending Dvir from the man, the Kibbutz votes to kick Stephan out. Dvir begs his mother for them to leave with Stephan for Switzerland, but Miri steadfastly refuses to leave the Kibbutz. Meanwhile, as Dvir tries to cope with his mother's increasing instability, he's also struggling with feeling the first stirrings of adolescent lust for Maya, a lonely French girl who's recently moved to the Kibbutz.
The ideals around the kibbutzim movement were lofty and utopian, but life in utopia came with a cost. Children were taken from their parents and raised in "children's houses" so as to free the adults to make a greater contribution to the community (and, in some cases, specifically to free women from the obligation of child-rearing). People who moved to a kibbutz gave up all their worldly wealth in to the community in order to join, and weren't always free to just leave. Sweet Mud shows us the shiny side of the kibbutizm coin -- the quality of life, the picturesque farmland, the democratically run community meetings -- but helmer Dror Shaul dares to look at the darker side of the movement as well.
How does a community based on egalitarianism and the principle of "each gives what he can and takes what he needs" deal with a member who isn't capable of fulling contributing -- or who comes to endanger the kibbutz and its way of life? We don't fully understand until the end why Miri can't (or won't) simply take her sons and go with Stephan, when he so clearly loves her and wants to be with her, until the last possible minute; when the pieces of Miri's madness suddenly fall into place like the tiny pieces of the all-white puzzle Stephan left behind, you're left almost aghast with the weight of comprehension.
Sweet Mud is, on the surface, a very simple story of a son's relationship with his fragile mother, but there are so many subtle threads woven into the fabric of the story that the end result is a richly complex tapestry of culture, idealism, love and freedom. The acting, especially from Yudkevitz, who portrays Miri as both tragic and dignified, and Steinof, in a truly impressive debut performance, carries the film, and the sweeping cinematography of the kibbutz and the surrounding countryside is so breathtaking you'll swear you're soaking in Eden incarnate. Sweet Mud is a complex and multi-layered coming-of-age tale; it's sweet and charming in all the right places, and deeply moving without being manipulative. It made me wish more American independent films -- especially those with teen protagonists - would do what this film does so well: Take a simple idea, don't overdo it, and execute it to perfection.