As with many films about young people, “Mean Creek” pivots around a bully and his victim. But while others in the same genre only artificially consider their characters, “Mean Creek” is an absorbing chronicle of a group of teenagers that become involved in a disturbing event that could have easily occurred in real life. The resulting film is imperfect in many ways, but it is nonetheless a triumph over standard fare. It is a powerful drama about the pressures of youth and the choices they lead to.
A selection of both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals earlier this year, “Mean Creek” follows a somewhat ordinary setup. There is George (Josh Peck, “Snow Day”), the stock bully who may be slightly disturbed but suffers mostly from loneliness. There is also Sam (Rory Culkin, “Signs”), George’s feeble target who turns to his older brother (Trevor Morgan, “Jurassic Park III”) and his best friend (Scott Mechlowicz, “Eurotrip”) for help. Together, they form an ill-fated plan for revenge, one which goes hugely awry. The beauty of “Mean Creek,” though, is that it is not about what actually happens, but how the characters react to it. The scenes that follow the climax skillfully consider each of the youths’ emotions, and capture them masterfully. Instead of veering off into familiar territory by becoming a morality play or an after-school special (last spring’s “Saved!” comes to mind), the film doesn’t waver. It devotes itself entirely to its characters, as each one of them realizes the magnitude of what they have done and the far-reaching consequences of their actions.
“Mean Creek” marks the feature debut of writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes, whose skill in surveying the characters is refreshing and admirable. Still, his direction is somewhat amateurish; there is an over-reliance on the banal use of handheld cameras and a disappointing final sequence that is so shameless in its emotional aims that it feels contrived and unworthy of what precedes it. Estes’s screenplay, on the other hand, emerges as the film’s enduring backbone. It is remarkable in both its realistic depiction of youth and its unflinching account of the events that occur. Besides Estes’s screenplay, the other keys to “Mean Creek’s” success are the superb performances of its many young actors, all of whom completely invest themselves in their roles. This is a film that totally commits itself to its characters, and the young cast succeeds tremendously in bringing them to life.
“Mean Creek” is an emotionally piercing and affecting drama, an unconventional triumph that lingers in its audience’s mind long after it’s over. It is not flawless, but does something that the teen genre too rarely attempts: It examines its characters completely and realistically. Audiences will scarcely find a film about young people that is this thoroughly considered, and told with this level of emotional realism.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars