After a severe beating received in the school yard, Sam (Rory Culkin, "Igby Goes Down," "You Can Count on Me") confides in older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan, "The Patriot"), who decides to teach Sam's tormentor George (Joshua Peck, "Spun") a lesson. Rocky and his over-eager buddy Marty (Scott Mechlowicz, "Euro Trip") cook up a bogus birthday boating trip for Sam so they can invite George, strip him of his clothes and abandon him miles from home. George, however, turns out to be a misunderstood, troubled kid that everyone but Marty decides to befriend. But evil intent, like the ripples of a stone dropped into a pond, will haunt that day on "Mean Creek."
First time writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes powerful debut is destined to be compared to 1986's "River's Edge," but whereas that film invoked shocked disbelief at the actions of a group of outcast teens, "Mean Creek" is more extraordinary in its exploration of the human ingredients of a tragedy using characters we can empathize with. Estes' amazing ensemble cast may turn out to be the 2004 version of Coppola's "The Outsiders," which featured such 'unknowns' as Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon and Diane Lane.
Estes demonstrates how surface perception frequently hides an entirely different reality. George can be seen as a bully living a privileged life in a higher economic stratum than most of the other kids, but he's a learning disabled loner who lives in the self-contained world of his digital video diaries who lashes out at perceived threats. His mother is single and probably over indulgent (note the needlepoint pillow in George's room - 'If it's not one thing, it's your mother'). Sam's crowd has an entirely different set of problems. Marty is constantly having abuse heaped on him by his gun-toting older brother Kile (Brandon Williams, "Crossroads") and his obnoxious friend Jasper (Heath Lourwood). Quiet Clyde (Ryan Kelley, "Stolen Summer") is taunted for being raised by a gay couple. Rocky and Sam have a loving relationship that becomes ironic when Rocky's protectiveness of his brother fuels a need for revenge (Estes writes the hatching of this idea, a plan to hurt without physically hurting, couched between typical brotherly observations on J Lo and Heather Locklear) .
The screenplay is a wonder of cause and effect. George is looking for the same thing as everyone else. He attempts to look cool to fit in and have friends, yet his verbal attack on Marty, which sparks the fuse of the film's climax, is based on a loss that he himself has probably suffered, albeit on a lesser scale. The cyclical nature of abuse is subtly drawn in Marty's backstory. A game of truth or dare becomes a chance to make others experience one's own fears, most poignantly when Sam's first kiss with Millie (Carly Schroeder, "The Lizzy Maguire Movie"), the lone female in the group, is embarrassingly public.
Rory Culkin, the only name in the cast, continues to build an impressive body of work for someone barely in his teens. His Sam is a decent, thoughtful kid in the throes of an intelligently handled first romance (which can't help but recall older brother Macauley's 1991 "My Girl"). Carly Schroeder, who could pass as Reese Witherspoon's little sister, makes Millie a moral compass thrown into a situation she did not ask for. Schroeder's impassioned cries of disbelief on the riverbank are gut-wrenching. The actress's glance into a mirror upon her return home is an act more usually associated with the loss of virginity and Schroeder puts the metaphor across. Peck brilliantly captures the delicate balance of awkwardness and oblivion displayed by people used to being rejected but unaware of their own peculiarities. His buoyant proclamations are misted in a slight spray of spit. Mechlowicz carries the weight of predestiny beneath a playful veneer that makes his friendship with the more grounded Rocky acceptable.
Using hand held camera and natural light, director of photography Sharone Meir gets the sun dappled greenery of a perfect summertime day (the film was shot on the Lewis river on the Oregon/Washington border) while keeping us focused on the kids' unfolding drama. Production designer Greg McMickle subtly contrasts George's privileged home against the humbler abodes of the other kids. Original music by Tomandandy (“The Mothman Prophecies") is atmospheric without being obtrusive.
The film's R rating is for some nonchalant scenes of pot smoking and some minor swearing that seem perfectly natural for the age range of the characters. "Mean Creek" is one of the best films of the summer and should be seen by anyone looking for intelligent, provocative fare.
Sam (Rory Culkin) is beaten by the school bully, oversized George (Joshua Peck), for the minor infraction of touching his expensive video camera. Sam tells his older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), of the incident, showing the damage George inflicted, and they brew up a plan to get revenge. But, what starts off as an innocent prank to humiliate the tormenter spirals out of control in “Mean Creek.”
First-time writer/director, Jacob Aaron Estes, has knocked one out of the park with his deftly constructed morality tale that represents one of the best portraits of a generation on the verge of adulthood.
George’s sudden, violent attack on Sam seems to be endemic in the behavior of a real bully. When the younger boy turns to Rocky for help, they decide that the only recourse is to humiliate Sam’s nemesis. The brothers tell of their decision to Rocky’s pals, Clyde and Marty (Ryan Kelley and Scott Mechlowicz), and they hatch a plan – pretend it’s Sam’s birthday and invite George to join them on a celebratory boat trip, then make him strip and jump into the icy river naked. The subterfuge works and George agrees to join them on the journey.
The next morning, the four boys and Sam’s unwitting friend, Millie (Carly Schroeder), pick George up and they head to the river. But, George confuses matters by giving Sam a very expensive super blaster water gun as a gift. The unexpected kindness baffles Sam who begins to have second thoughts, especially after he tells Millie. She is adamantly against the planned humiliation and Sam convinces Rocky that it is not right. But, Clyde, who George attacked with a baseball bat when they were kids, and Marty, who has a grudge against the well-off bully, think they should see it through to the end.
Writer Estes has crafted a story that is a believable journey down the river, a trip that is both enlightenment and tragedy. On the surface, it looks like Sam is right. George is an evil bully who must get his due for his harmful deeds. As the journey commences and he learns about George – he is a lonely, only child who has trouble making friends because of his sometimes sociopath behavior – Sam realizes that things are not what they seem and that George has real problems that cause him to act the way he does. As the journey continues both the kids’ attitudes and yours change toward George.
“Mean Creek” is an accomplished work by the tyro helmer/scribe that combines a solid story, realistic dialog, deft direction and an incredible ensemble cast that make this one of the best films of the year. The young cast pivots on Rory Culkin’s Sam, but the rest give it their all and there is not an underdeveloped character in the lot. 15-year old Culkin continues to impress with the talents he displayed in such films as “Igby Goes Down” (as young Igby) and “Signs.” He is the catalyst for “Mean Creek” and handles himself like a veteran.
The rest of the little-known and unknown cast is populated by a talented bunch of young actors. The best find of all is Joshua Peck playing George. His TV roots in such fare as “The Amanda Show” belies the complexity and depth he lends to his bully character. As the story unfolds, the layers of George’s heart and mind peel away and our earlier opinions about him change dramatically due to the young actor’s riveting performance. The rest of the principle ensemble copes well with the material, too.
Scott Mechlowicz, seen earlier this year in “Euro Trip,” smolders as the tough, abused Marty, repping a character who won’t change his mind once set, despite valid reasons to do so. Ryan Kelley, from TV’s “Smallville,” gives depth to his troubled character struggling with unconventional parents – this makes sense when you find out why. Trevor Morgan plays the brotherly role of Rocky quite well and comes across as a protective older sibling to Sam. Carly Schroeder, as the sole girl on the team, holds her own with her all male costars. Even incidental players, like Marty’s brother, Kile (Branden Williams), and his prankster sidekick, Jasper (Heath Lourwood), give dimension to their small roles.
Helmer Estes is aided in his effort creating “Mean Creek” by a capable behind-the-camera team. Director of photography, Israeli-born Sharone Meir, gives a fluid look to the film with his ever-moving camera and expert shot composition. Location, too, shows its importance as the river takes on character proportions as well. All other techs are notably handled.
“Mean Creek” is what independent film should be. There are no frills here, just solidly crafted filmmaking and good ensemble acting that that makes being a film critic worth it. I give it an A-.
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