Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
Okay, ending first. Normally, the overly happy ending would bother me. Mud should probably be dead. Some people are so unwilling to buy the happy ending that they take the meaning of the ending to be Mud in the afterlife. But that doesn't work because Sam Shephard (who wasn't shot) is with him, and he's all bandaged up. Do you really need stitches and gauze in heaven? Anyway, I'm okay with the ending because Mud was not just a character in the film. He represented Ellis's hope for true love. If Mud dies, then that means Ellis will never be able to love anyone for the rest of his life just because his parents got divorced and some stuck-up rich girl made fun of him. Hardly excuse for a life of solitude. So with Mud surviving, it shows that Ellis's hope for true love took a bit of a beating, but it's still alive. This would also explain the little wave he gets from the girl near the end. So a good film doesn't require a negative, even realistic, ending if it sacrifices the entire point of the film.
I haven't really come across it anywhere, but I imagine some might want to compare this film to Beast of the Southern Wild. I only want to point it out because I didn't care for that movie nearly as much as most people because I found it a bit pretentious, and the magical element seemed unnecessary. Mud, on the other hand, doesn't need a giant animal trudging through the river or anything like that. The boys don't need to go running around with sparklers and crap. It's a real movie, and that's why it's better. Also, Neckbone is a much better name than Hushpuppy.