Mean Creek (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's an axiom that if a group of teenagers ventures into the woods during the course of a motion picture, something bad is going to happen. Mean Creek is evidence that there are times when even the most uninspired clichés can result in compelling stories. This movie, the feature debut of writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes, elaborates its theme - the Newtonian concept that every action has a consequence - with subtlety and clarity. The characters, nearly all of whom begin as types, develop into much more, and the complexity of the story's central moral dilemma easily trumps concerns about minor plot contrivances. Mean Creek is as involving as it is disturbing.

In terms of providing insight into the teenage psyche, and postulating why events like the Columbine massacre occur, Mean Creek is less successful than a nastier, more mean-spirited film like Bully. But Estes' goal isn't to explain Columbine. Instead, he wants us to understand something about why individuals on either side of the bully/victim divide act as they do. With a few minor tweaks and some stripping away of multi-dimensionality, Mean Creek could become a standard-issue Hollywood revenge picture. But it's the things Estes adds in, and the way he views the characters and their reactions to circumstances that sets this movie apart.

Sam (Rory Culkin) is a perfect target for bullies - he's a loner with a small frame and a large intellect who would rather harbor his resentment than act upon it. That makes him an ideal punching bag for George (Josh Peck), whose abuse of Sam goes beyond verbal taunts to physical brutality. One day, when Sam comes home from school with some tell-tale bruises, his older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), decides that the time has come to teach George a lesson. Sam will only go along with the plan if Rocky promises that George will be "hurt without really being hurt." With the help of his friends, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley), Rocky comes up with the perfect scheme involving a seemingly innocent boat ride on a nearby river.

Getting George to come is an easy task. Sam pretends that he wants to mend bridges, so he invites George to his "birthday party." Also in the boat along with Sam, Rocky, George, Marty, and Clyde is Sam's sort-of girlfriend, Millie (Carly Schroeder). But an unusual thing happens during the course of the journey - Sam and Rocky discover that George isn't really a bad guy. He's uncouth and socially immature, but all he really wants is to have a few friends. Were he to possess a scrawny frame rather than a bloated one, he would likely be the target of bullying rather than the bully. Sam and Rocky decide they want to call off the practical joke, and Millie and Clyde agree. But Marty, who is being victimized by his older brother, wants this taste of revenge, even if it's only through a surrogate. His determination to move forward leads to a predictable tragedy.

If, by reading this review, you can guess what happens on the river, Mean Creek will not be spoiled. This is not a thriller, and there aren't a lot of surprises. It is a character piece that examines how teenagers face their first true moral dilemma. The test of principles isn't a simple quandary like whether it's wrong to steal food in the absence of money, but something far more substantive - the kind of test that would strain the ethics of even the most upright adult. When does inaction become culpability? And to what degree can the promptings of a guilt-ridden conscience be ignored?

The acting is strong across-the-board. Amongst the six major players, there isn't a weak performance or instance of miscasting. Rory Culkin, the youngest of the talented clan, plays Sam as a meek early teenager who becomes involved in a situation that he cannot control. Josh Peck presents a three-dimensional bully: someone who can be hateful and obnoxious, but at times is so pathetic that he evokes pity. Scott Mechlowicz's Marty can be charming and funny, until something brings out his dark side. Carly Schroeder's Millie is forced to do a lot of growing up in a short time. Equally strong efforts are turned in by Trevor Morgan and Ryan Kelley.

With Mean Creek, Estes has provided a keenly-honed view of human psychology. We would all like to think we would do "the right thing" in the face of a tragedy, but how many of us really know? Mean Creek presents the dilemma in a manner to which every member of the audience can relate. Each of the characters reacts differently, and we're never left wondering about the reasons underpinning the reaction. By entering such fertile, intellectually stimulating and psychologically rich territory, Estes provides us with a freshman feature that is far beyond the generic coming-of-age tale Mean Creek initially seems to be.

Mean Creek (United States, 2004)

Director: Jacob Aaron Estes
Cast: Rory Culkin, Trevor Morgan, Scott Mechlowicz, Carly Schroeder, Ryan Kelley, Josh Peck
Screenplay: Jacob Aaron Estes
Cinematography: Sharon Meir
Music: Ethan Gold
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Classics
Run Time: 1:29
U.S. Release Date: 2004-08-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1