A river trip becomes an allegory of life, coming-of-age and death in writer-director Jacob Estes’ “Mean Creek.” A sort-of junior-sized “Deliverance” by way of “Stand By Me,” with a pinch of “Lord of the Flies” thrown in, the story offers few surprises, but tale of friends seeking revenge on the school bully overcomes its inherently flawed material. Estes’ debut feature’s strength lies in its crackling intensity, ultra-sharp character insights and an affinity for teenage protagonists who look and sound like real teens. An object of buyer interest at Sundance, pic could do strong niche biz with potential mainstream crossover.
In a random act of schoolyard bullying, shy, diminutive Sam (Rory Culkin) is pummeled by frequent nemesis George (Josh Peck). Concerned older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) concocts a plan: He and Sam will invite George on a boating trip, ostensibly to celebrate Sam’s birthday. Only, the trip’s real purpose will be to strand George mid-river, strip him nude and force him to run all the way home.
Accompanying them will be Rock’s friends Clyde (Ryan Kelly), another victim of George’s who has been relentlessly teased for having two gay fathers, and the preening, posturing Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), who uses machismo to compensate for his unresolved feelings over his father’s recent suicide. One girl is invited along: Millie (Carly Schroeder), on whom Sam has an obvious, though undisclosed crush.
Estes has a sharp eye and ear for the private world of adolescents — particularly for adolescent boys. As in Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” things are further complicated by the conspicuous absence of parents in the film. In almost every way, however, “Mean Creek” reps a more intelligent, affecting exploration of many of the same themes Van Sant dealt with in his film.
Pic’s early moments are steeped in nostalgia: walks home from school with older brothers; warm, seemingly endless spring afternoons; and other rights of adolescent passage. Estes conjures a specific kind of iconic-suburban childhood, steeped in the vestiges of Norman Rockwell and Mark Twain, and ripe for rupturing. Yet, it rings true, partly because Estes never overstates his case, and partly because he seems to speak from a place of deeply felt experience.
On the river, Estes, working with the cinematographer Sharone Meir, exhibits an acute attention to natural landscape, using it as a contrapuntal background to the physical and emotional horrors about to take place.
What’s so strong about Estes’ work is how he manages to surprise, rarely making people or situations out to be as black or white as he so easily might have. Nor does Estes seem compelled to dress the film up with needless surprises or twists.
The helmer channels his energies equally into the visual aspects of pic and into working with his cast of mostly newcomers, who respond with a raft of impressive turns. Of particular note is Peck, whose George is borne from a keen sense of the way loneliness and humiliation can breed meanness and contempt. As Marty, Mechlowicz employs a smoldering intensity and devil-may-care smirk that strongly recall the young Burt Reynolds, while showing that those are merely devices used to cloak his character’s own deep-seated insecurity.