The highly suspenseful, superbly crafted Mean Creek represents the striking feature debut of writer-director Jacob Estes. Situating his narrative within a well-developed American film tradition, Estes offers a coming-of-age tale with strong echoes to such 1980s classics as Stand By Me and particularly River's Edge.
At the center of this allegorical tale is a river trip that goes awry, precipitating a moral crisis for its group of adolescents. The locale of this dark, harrowing film also suggests an adolescent version of Heart of Darkness. In both films, an adventure down a river turns a shadowy corner, kicking off a search for personal redemption, and leading to sharply contrasting fateful decisions.
The tale begins with a random act of violence, the kind that occurs in every boy's school life. A shy, slender kid, Sam (Rory Culkin, brother of Macaulay and Kieran) is hit by George (Josh Peck), the school bully, in the schoolyard. To retaliate, Sam's older brother, Rocky (Tevor Morgan) masterminds a nasty revenge plan, a boat trip in which George will endure verbal harassment and physical humiliation.
Turning the classic tale of an American bully on its head, Mean Creek centers on a more complex bully than usually seen in film. On the surface, George is a fat, nasty, obnoxious kid who deserves a rough treatment. However, as written by Estes and played by Peck, George is revealed to be a sensitive kid (he keeps a poetic video diary), whose lifetime of loneliness and humiliation has bred intolerable meanness and contempt.
The group in Mean Creek includes a number of outsiders. The most prominent is Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), who's a more multi-nuanced character than he appears to be. He begins as a devil-may-care macho only to reveal deep-seated insecurities and a chip on his shoulder, irresolvable feelings toward his father who committed suicide under some mysterious circumstances.
Though a genre film, Mean Creek establishes its distinct identity with a number of elements that update the generic conventions. For instance, one of the boys, Clyde (Ryan Kelly), has two gay fathers, making him a “natural victim” of tease and ridicule. Another new theme is the tentative evolving romance between Millie (Carly Schroeder), a girl who's invited to the trip, and Sam, who clearly doesn't know how to articulate or express his feelings. In most films of this kind, the group is all-male, but here, the presence of Millie has an effect on the behavioral dynamics of all the participants.
Estes shows an extraordinarily clear understanding of aimless and restless teenagers who are left floundering after one of their members dies. As scripter and helmer, he reveals a sharp eye and ear for the way that adolescents interact; his dialogue is concise and authentic. The whole film feels as if it were made from the inside, perhaps even based on personal experience.
The major, and best, part of the story takes place during the river trip, where tensions gradually escalate, building toward an irreversible disaster and inevitable moral crisis. Estes channels his considerable talent into the film's thematic and visual aspects and overall impact. He shows acute attention to the natural landscape, which functions as much more than background to the physical and emotional horrors. Shot for the most part with hand-held camera and using available light on the Oregon/Washington border, Mean Creek captures the duality of the river as a harmonious idyllic as well as a dark and ominous place where crime takes place.
Mean Creek bears resemblance to River's Edge (1986), the story a high school student who strangles his girlfriend on a whim and then casually displays the corpse to his apathetic friends, who leave the murder unreported for days. Though dealing with similar issues–kids growing up in amoral surroundings and anomie, Mean Creek is arguably a better film. Like River's Edge, it examines the lack of moral guidance for kids who are not necessarily bad but have no reliable authority figures to turn to; all the adults fail as role models
But Mean Creek is not as bleak as River's Edge, which was disturbingly depressing due to its nightmarish depiction of adolescents who live in a totally vacant moral universe. That film presented a bleak picture of coming of age as a period of boredom and waste with no sense of direction. Living empty, meaningless lives, the kids are left to their own devices. In contrast, Mean Creak establishes in detail the context for the crime, which is not saying it offers a legit cause for such deviant behavior but at least it tries to explain the origins of the crisis.
The film is acted with utter conviction by a fine, largely unknown young cast that's natural, lending the film the freshness and credibility it needs. With a short running time of 89 minutes, Mean Creek is a taut, straightforward movie in which every minute counts, and not one is wasted on a superfluous observation.