Mean Creek

on August 20, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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Anchored by an emotionally fraught performance by Josh Peck, "Mean Creek," set in a small Oregon town, explores the stark reality of bullying--who does it and why. Conceived of and developed before Columbine--in fact sidelined by the violent attack as too risky--the screenplay likens itself to an adolescent "Heart of Darkness" about kids coping with tough decisions and developing a sense of morality in a world characterized by moral ambiguity.

Like many kids--recent figures from the American Medical Association suggest that one in 10 public school students have been victims of violent bullying--Sam (Rory Culkin) is harassed at school, and he and his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) begin to dream up revenge fantasies to get back at his tormentor, George (Peck). Principled from the outset, Sam insists, "If we hurt him, we'll be just as bad as him." "So we need to hurt him without really hurting him," Rocky concludes. With Rocky's friends, troubled Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and sensitive Clyde (Ryan Kelley), they devise a scheme by which they'll pretend it's Sam's birthday and invite George on a boat trip at the creek. Once they're out on the water, they'll initiate a game of Truth or Dare, strip George naked and leave him behind.

But their plan begins to go awry when Sam's girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder) objects and George proves to be not all that bad, showing up with a birthday gift--an industrial-sized water gun--that he bought for Sam with his allowance. Through his constant videotaping and motor-mouth yapping, a more complex portrait emerges. This is a kid who's dyslexic; who frets about getting into a car with a driver who's drinking and a boat without lifejackets; but who, in an attempt to impress the older boys, claims he's smoked cigarettes before and been high and skipped a rock 1,000 times.

He's also a kid who quickly discerns how to press each of the others' buttons--an acuity that will serve as his demise. At once endearing and infuriating, Peck has the audience--like Sam, Millie, Rocky and Clyde (though not so much Marty)--emotionally vacillating between wanting to protect him and wanting to kill him. It's to Peck's credit that he's able to elicit such a range of feelings in a matter of minutes.

Meanwhile, writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes has crafted a refreshingly unpredictable ending that counters the "Lord of the Flies" pessimism of today's society and leaves it open--what happens next isn't as important as the decisions the characters make. However, although it is necessary to take the time to build the tension and emotion that lead up to the pivotal moment for it to be effective, even at a fleeting 87 minutes, there are protracted moments of stasis in "Mean Creek" that could have been condensed without sacrificing their impact. One has to question whether there's enough material here to sustain a feature film and whether it might have worked better as a short. Starring Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck and Carly Schroeder. Directed and written by Jacob Aaron Estes. Produced by Rick Rosenthal, Susan Johnson and Hgai Shaham. A Paramount Classics release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 87 min

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