An independent project by a young American director, Jacob Aaron Estes, making his feature debut, Mean Creek (2004) stands as a prime example of noteworthy films that initially fly in under the radar. Estes, who also wrote the screenplay, tells the story of a group of teenagers who take a scenic river ride, but for one of them – a despised bully who is lured by the deception of the others into thinking they want to be his friend – things may not be how they appear on the surface. This is a powerful film about revenge, responsibility and culpability. For this group of teenagers, any price they have to pay will be a heavy one with far-reaching ramifications set to hover like a black veil over their immediate lives. It’s not only the main players on this trip who’ll be victims but everyone present.
We’re first introduced to Sam (Rory Culkin), a meek, wholesome teenager, who often finds himself on the receiving end of the school bully’s attention – the bully, George (Josh Peck) is an overweight kid who recklessly uses his bulk to intimidate and dominate his classmates. But after coming home from another typical day at school, Sam’s older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) decides that enough is enough and that a lesson of some description is in order as a means of payback against George.
He decides on a river trip, employing the help of a couple of his own friends, and convinces Sam to slyly coax George into believing that he bears no grudge and wants to be friends for the purposes of luring him out onto the water with them for a convivial bonding session. Also coming along as a further complication will be Millie (Carly Schroeder), a schoolmate who Sam is very close to.
An internal struggle of will and conscience soon follows on this trip down ‘Mean Creek’ as Sam fights the contrary forces within himself – wanting to see some retribution and teach George a lesson for his bullying, but not wanting to take things as far as his perversely enthusiastic brother would like. He has to fight deep-rooted elements of his own nature in deciding if he’s willing to carry out some form of revenge – and if so, how far is he willing to go? This crew of teenagers sets off on their river journey with their playfulness, sense of adventure and youthful pretensions intact, but by the end of the day will find themselves inhabiting a far less innocent world than the one they’ve known.
What’s so impressive about this ultimately sombre tale is how assuredly Estes deals with its most important themes in the final act. He refuses to dole out simple solutions for us or his characters, faced as they are with burdensome moral quandaries as the bleak mood of the afternoon deepens. The wonderful ensemble of young actors are more than up to the task as well, providing weight and substance beyond their years to these sometimes challenging roles, especially the impressive Culkin. The tomandandy (Tom Hadju and Andy Milburn) score is one of the duo’s most melodic and, sparsely used, it really becomes a poignant counterpoint. Mean Creek is a polished, thought-provoking film and compulsory viewing for anyone looking to mine the back catalogue of American cinema gems.