Smack dab in the middle of Hollywood's loud-and-dumb season, larded with predatory aliens and car-banging thrillers, comes a thoughtful little indie film about kids and how they can go wrong -- or go right. Writer and director Jacob Aaron Estes' debut feature, Mean Creek, is a morality play writ both small and large, and compelling enough that I often found my own conscience squirming along.
Estes opens with a favorite self-referential trick of young filmmakers -- the use of a video camera by one of the film's characters. We spy through the lens at the grainy footage of a prepubescent fat kid setting up the camera in order to capture himself shooting basketball hoops alone in the schoolyard. When a smaller classmate accidentally bumps into the set-up, the now-listing camera documents the beginning of a frenzied beating the big kid lays onto the smaller kid.
The pummeled boy is Sam (Rory Culkin), and later in his shabby home, holding a bag of frozen peas to his black eye, he confesses his resignation to his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan). Sam knows he is destined to be bullied by the fat kid, George; Rocky disagrees: "Something's gotta give." Rocky and his buddies Clyde and Marty concoct a revenge scheme: George will be invited to a boating trip on a nearby river, and once out of his element, will be summarily humiliated as payback.
In the few minutes it takes to lay out the plan, Estes also quickly sketches the crew. Besides Sam's stoic misery tempered by hope, there's the alpha male, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), whose cavalier attitude cloaks impotent rage. Clyde (Ryan Kelly) struggles for maturity: He is persecuted by his friends for having two gay dads, and his refusal to rise to their bait suggests he respects his atypical parents and is doubly hurt when addressed as "faggot ... aww, just joking, man." Rocky is the soother, the go-between with the thankless job of peacemaking.
George, of course, we already reckon we know; he's a bully, and as such deserves whatever he's going to get. But when Estes drops us inside George's bedroom the morning of the boat trip, George's excited and careful preparations are heartbreaking. When he bounds eagerly to the car -- even thrusting a carefully wrapped present at Sam, whose birthday he thinks the trip is celebrating -- the truth is obvious: George is pathetic, an overweight lonely kid with a glaring lack of social skills, a truly sad figure.
We cringe; Sam cringes. He begs to have the prank called off. A deal is struck, and the gang -- with all their squabbles and pent-up emotions -- takes to the secluded river, on a beautiful sunny day that is bound to turn troubled.
Neither the film's ideas nor its execution are groundbreaking, but this is a nervy little 90-minute package, even as it invokes earlier works including River's Edge and The Lord of the Flies. Mean Creek is indie-style to a T -- Estes' handheld camera skitters about the rundown Oregon backcountry, where the charm of nature is offset by cheap trailer homes and signs that say "Try our freedom fries." Estes, though, has a keen ear for how kids talk; the dialogue feels organic -- and appropriately profane (the younger kids haven't quite finessed cursing). Such naturalism is one of this film's chief assets.
Another is Josh Peck -- a kid-vid veteran (he was Nickelodeon's correspondent at both political conventions this summer) -- who inhabits George's awkward, blubbery shell with its sheen of anxious sweat. Peck makes George an erratic motormouth who vacillates wildly between need, obsequiousness and petty meanness, as painfully unaware of his frustrating personality as we are cognizant. It's an adept performance, and Peck yanks us from pity to irritation to chagrin like a pro.
Also impressive is the work of young Culkin, another seasoned performer (Signs, Igby Goes Down). Mean Creek is ultimately Sam's coming-of-age story, and Culkin, as the tentative boy challenged to provide moral direction, gives a wonderfully restrained performance: We can see what he doesn't dare blurt out written across his pained face.
The small world Estes creates in Mean Creek is effectively free of adults, and he's obviously intrigued to examine how children and teens, left to their own devices, navigate such moral minefields as loyalty, responsibility and leadership in the event of a crisis. Peer pressure is a recurring burden -- from small matters such as teasing to life-altering decisions. While George's ache to be accepted is wildly telegraphed, by no means are the others immune to this desire: You gotta go along to get along, right?
The first two-thirds of Mean Creek are so edgy that, after building to the inevitable trouble, the film's tension peters out. In the quiet aftermath there's more space to consider that Estes' story is an artificial construct (the events depicted could happen, but they are hardly the stuff of every day), and toward the resolution there are elements of after-school special that feel less natural. But these are small quibbles about an impressive debut, a suspenseful morality exercise that is a welcome break from both bombastic summer dreck and typically sweet-and-spunky teen-based films. Squirrel Hill