Mean Creek

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Jacob Aaron Estes

With Josh Peck, Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan, and Carly Schroeder.

Critical response to Mean Creek, writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes’s feature debut, has been dominated by allusions to its antecedents and influences. First come the facile cinematic lineages–Deliverance meets Lord of the Flies, River’s Edge meets Stand by Me–followed by references to young adult fiction and “life lesson” TV dramas. You might think it’d be impossible for a film to simultaneously evoke Deliverance and after-school specials, but there’s at least some superficial validity to all these comparisons. And yet Mean Creek is very much its own picture–and a damn sight better one than Stand by Me.

The opening sequence is shot in a school yard with a videocam belonging to one of the characters, an obese boy in his early teens. The kid positions the camera to record himself dribbling and shooting hoops on the basketball court. Although the microphone picks up the cheery chaos of a middle-school recess period, the fat kid’s all alone in the frame. His game is absolutely pathetic, and it’s made even worse by his attempts to project a nonchalant prowess that will never be his–his body language suggests he’s not so much playing ball as acting out a daydream of being somebody who can. Your heart goes out to him, but you wish to God he’d stop what he’s doing: there’s no way such nakedly dorky behavior can go unpunished for long on a crowded playground.

As if on cue, other kids come crunching through the gravel toward the camera. One of them picks it up, and you brace yourself for the ritual humiliation of the fat boy to begin–probably with a game of keep-away. Instead the fat boy whirls around and screams “Don’t touch my fucking camera!” Then he freight-trains into whoever’s holding it. Third-person film now takes over from video, and we see the fat kid straddling the chest of a boy a third of his size, throwing practiced haymakers into his face. The fat kid, we now comprehend, can spaz out in public with impunity because he’s the terror of the school yard.

This brief sequence–I doubt it lasts over a minute–exemplifies Estes’s two chief strengths as a writer and director. The first is a knack for illuminating the inner lives of his characters in marvelously efficient and understated ways. The second, which grows directly out of the first, is a wild-card talent for messing with the viewer’s sympathy, abruptly redirecting it from one character to another from one moment to the next.

Mean Creek takes place in and around a crummy small town in Oregon. Sam (Rory Culkin), the little kid who takes the beating for touching the bully’s camera, has a protective older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan). Rocky and his hotheaded friend Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) decide to teach a lesson to the bully, George (Josh Peck), who’s been held back several grades because of a learning disability. Their plan is to invite George along on a boat trip down a nearby river, then strip him and throw him overboard, leaving him to walk home naked. (Estes finesses the implausibility of the bully’s walking into such an obvious trap with a well-scripted phone call in which Rocky bamboozles George with irresistible cool-kid charm.)

Joining Sam, Rocky, Marty, and George on the trip are Clyde (Ryan Kelley), Rocky and Marty’s quieter, more sensitive friend, and Millie (Carly Schroeder), a classmate of Sam’s who’d like to be his girlfriend. When Millie learns the trip’s real purpose, she pressures the boys to call it off. Sam, Rocky, and Clyde are all amenable to a stay of execution–George, they’re surprised and somewhat ashamed to discover, is a clever, imaginative kid intermittently capable of a loopy sort of wit, even charm. Marty, who wants to follow through, disgustedly agrees to let George off the hook, but later tries to revive the plan by initiating a game of Truth or Dare. Recognizing Marty’s intentions, Sam, Millie, and Clyde try to nip the game in the bud, but George undercuts his defenders by weighing in on Marty’s side, calling them “faggots” and worse for not wanting to play. Once the game is under way, its escalating emotional violence pushes George into a fugue of rage. He fires volleys of appallingly cruel verbal barbs at his false friends. They implore him to stop–“Nobody talks to people that way, George!”–but he won’t, or can’t.

On the strength of Peck’s performance as George–by turns repulsive, endearing, pitiable, and monstrous– I’d say he has a boundless future as a character actor. And Estes deserves credit for keeping the rehabilitation of George’s character within the bounds of plausibility. If Mean Creek abided by the treacly logic of Stand by Me, the pariah kid would be instantly transformed by his first dose of social acceptance; instead Estes realistically presents George as a damaged creep with a few flickeringly latent redeeming qualities. Watching George you can imagine how, in some more forgiving social milieu, he might master the rules of ordinary social give-and-take. He never gets the chance on the brief river voyage: under Marty’s perpetual goading, he keeps reverting to being a jerk, telling moronic, self-aggrandizing lies and viciously dumping on Clyde, Sam, and Millie in a desperate attempt to shore up his own standing.

There’s other stuff about being young that Mean Creek gets closer to right than any movie I’ve seen. For example, the way that bullying and friendship overlap: where movies like Stand by Me nostalgically misremember the world of youth as being divided into us and them, true friends and total thugs, Mean Creek more accurately portrays the dynamic of in-groups as charged with both affection and aggression. And Mean Creek represents a cinematic landmark in its naturalistic depiction of marijuana use–i.e., a reefer circulates and nothing happens.

Much as I admired this film, I’m not sure exactly who it was made for. Some critics have deplored the supposed irony that Mean Creek was given an R rating–due to a few curse words and the aforementioned reefer–and thus won’t be seen by the youngsters who would benefit most from it. Maybe I’d agree if I hadn’t just read Laura Miller’s barbed analysis of young adult fiction, which ran in the New York Times a few weeks ago under the headline “Why Teachers Love Depressing Books.” While acknowledging that many books in the young adult canon have real literary and ethical merit, Miller seconds the reservations of critic Judith Feinberg, who sees the genre’s obsession with violence, addiction, abandonment, suicide, and so forth as serving adult rather than adolescent needs. Adults, Miller writes, “secretly resent the sheltered, enchanted world children inhabit and under the pretext of preparing them for life’s inevitable difficulties, want to rub their noses in traumas they may never actually experience and often aren’t yet able to comprehend. All the better to turn them into miniature grown-ups, little troupers girded to face a world where they have no one to count on but themselves.”

Me, I wouldn’t take my 13-year-old nephew to see Mean Creek. I think it would freak him out–and I’d be worried if it didn’t.