Mean Creek

Mean Creek
Director: Jacob Aaron Estes
Screenplay: Jacob Aaron Estes
Stars: Rory Culkin (Sam), Ryan Kelley (Clyde), Scott Mechlowicz (Marty Blank), Trevor Morgan (Rocky), Josh Peck (George), Carly Schroeder (Millie), J.W. Crawford (Tom)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2004
Country: U.S.
Mean Creek
Mean CreekWe’ve seen the scenario in Jacob Aaron Estes’ Mean Creek countless times, in which a group of kids finds themselves stranded at a moral crossroads, usually because of an accidental death. It’s been treated with heavy gravitas in films such as River’s Edge (1986) and George Washington (2000), it’s been given retro Hollywood gloss in The Outsiders (1983), and it’s even been fodder for the slasher genre in The House on Sorority Row (1984). The themes are familiar, as well -- the alienation of youth, the loss of innocence, the dangers of groupthink.

Yet, Mean Creek still works and it still grips us and makes us think about the weight of consequence due largely to Estes’ fine scrip, naturalistic direction that is thankfully lacking in indie-auteur pretense, and a handful of excellent performances from a group of talented young actors, all of whom have a vague familiarity to them (“Isn’t that kid on one of those Disney Channel shows … Is that the guy from Eurotrip?”). In particular, Estes has a gift for radically shifting our sympathies at the drop of a hat, causing us to question what would, in a simpler film, be transparent.

The story takes place in a run-down, rural town in Oregon, the kind no one ever pays attention to until something tragic happens there. It begins with Sam (Rory Culkin), a middle schooler who is clearly small for his age, being beaten up by the oversized school bully, George (Josh Peck), because Sam had the gall to touch George’s videocamera. We see part of the scene through the low-res videocamera lens, giving us a firsthand view of George’s foul-mouthed ruthlessness. His viciously violent turn on Sam seems to hinge on some kind of twisted instinct, rather than any sense of justified reaction.

Sam is too nice a kid to really do anything about it, but his slightly older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), is a bit tougher and hangs out with even tougher kids, particularly Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), who’s the perfect embodiment of youthful good looks (he looks and sounds so much like Brad Pitt it’s scary) just barely masking a deeply disturbing inner nihilism. Rocky and Marty are also friends with Clyde (Ryan Kelley), a sensitive kid who feels particularly uncomfortable because he has been raised by two fathers in a small town that is clearly not known for its progressive politics.

Given Sam’s unwillingness (and inability) to fight back against George, Marty and Rocky hatch a plan to put together a faux birthday party boat trip down the river and invite George along for the ride, with the idea being to humiliate him and thus avenge Sam. Sam goes along with it because nothing in the plan involves George being hurt -- at least physically. Sam even brings along his new would-be girlfriend, the white-blonde Millie (Carly Schroeder), but fails to tell her what’s going to happen until they’re in the middle of it.

Not surprisingly, things don’t go according to plan, and something very bad transpires that may or may not have been an accident. Thus, the kids find themselves trapped in a moral quagmire, in which they can either go to the authorities and come clean, but risk the consequences, or they can cover up their involvement and hope that no one ever finds out. Of course, as we all learned from reading The Scarlet Letter, burying guilt never makes it go away, and the second part of the film depicts quite movingly the various ways in which the characters are unable to bury their feelings as they buried the evidence of what they did.

There is a slightly telegraphed quality to Mean Creek, partially because the story has been worked and reworked in so many different ways already. We can see immediately that once the prank is planned that it will go bad, so it’s only a matter of time before everything breaks down. However, the film works because Estes, a first-time feature writer/director, creates such believable characters and allows them to react in ways that are not only true to their personalities, but also create an intriguing moral continuum that could very well stand in for all of humanity.

Each of the kids represents a spot on a continuum of human sadism. Marty is clearly the most sadistic of the group and also the most charming; he is the only one who is truly relishing the prank to be played, and even though he justifies it as something deserved, it is impossible not to see that he enjoys being the one in power inflicting the damage. At the other end of the continuum is Millie, who wants nothing to do with the prank and never would have gone out to the river with Sam in the first place had she known about it. She is the character with the most empathy, and it says something about Estes’ profoundly humanistic view of the world that her empathy carries a powerful charge.

The other kids are all shifting shades of gray in the middle, especially George. Although he is at first depicted as a one-note, mean-spirited bully, we gradually learn more about him as the film progresses and come to see that he is simply a troubled kid with a learning disability and a weight problem who doesn’t fit in anywhere. This doesn’t excuse the cruelty he displays, but it helps explain it. As written, George is an enigma, a lisping, introspective, but largely ignorant kid who has the potential to be decent and even outright nice (he spends quite a bit of his allowance buying Sam a birthday present), but also absentmindedly slips into a form of verbal cruelty that is just as mean as anything physical he might do. This human side of George causes Sam to rethink what he’s doing, and he very nearly gets the group to call off the prank -- until George antagonizes them one too many times, even goading Millie into going along with it.

An early discussion between Marty and Rocky about “projection” -- where you project your own feelings onto someone else -- foreshadows what is to come and forces us to question whether the terrible thing that eventually happens is an accident or not. In Estes’ moral universe, it would seem that nothing is an accident; rather, everything is an action or reaction, and the moral choices his characters make determine the course of their humanity. It’s a fairly simplistic set-up, a well-worn morality play that doesn’t offer any grand philosophical revelations, but Estes brings a genuine sense of concern to his characters -- all his characters -- and their plights, revealing them to be multifaceted, recognizably flawed human beings with whom we can relate and for whom we can mourn. Mean Creek is about that old coming-of-age standby, the death of innocence, but it complicates the scenario by being brave enough to ask, “Whose?”

Mean Creek DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby 2.0 Surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Commentary by writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes, editor Madeleine Gavin, cinematographer Sharon Meir, and actors Ryan Kelley, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck, and Carly Schroeder
  • Storyboards
  • DistributorParamount Home Video
    Release DateJanuary 25, 2005

    This DVD of Mean Creek has a very good anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image was so clear and detailed that I was surprised to learn in the audio commentary that the entire film, with the exception of the video sequences, was shot on Super 16mm. The muted color scheme, which features a good deal of green, blue, and brown, is clean and vivid, and skin tones look natural. Even the darker sequences maintain a natural look without becoming overly grainy.

    The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is fairly subdued, with little in the way of surround effects. There is not much extradiegetic music in the film, and most of the sound effects are simple and naturalistic. The opening credits sequence, which takes place beneath the water, has an effectively enveloping feel to it.

    The screen-specific audio commentary featuring writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes, editor Madeleine Gavin, cinematographer Sharon Meir, and actors Ryan Kelley, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck, and Carly Schroeder is a bit hit-and-miss. It sounds as though the adults and kids were recorded in separate sessions and then edited together. The filmmakers have some interesting things to say about making the film, which makes the commentary worth a listen, but the kids’ comments are mostly worthless -- just a lot of “Oh, remember when …” and “I like this scene …”

    The only other supplement is a set of black-and-white storyboards.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Video

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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