For all the movies that have been made about teenagers, and even about misguided teenagers with inattentive parents specifically, few have captured kids’ interpersonal relationships as insightfully and accurately as Jacob Estes’ debut feature “Mean Creek.”
There are six kids here, and they all relate to each other in different ways, representing numerous levels of the middle and high school pecking orders. It is Kid #1’s connection with the other five that is most critical to the story, but Estes doesn’t stop there. He also shows us how Kid #3 doesn’t quite fit with his buddies #4 and 5, and how Kid #2 and Kid #6 resent Kid #4, and so on. What we’ve got ourselves here is a microcosm.
Set in rural Oregon, the story begins with young Sam (Rory Culkin), a boy of about 12 who is tormented regularly by George (Joshua Peck), an overweight, obnoxious boy with no friends who has adopted the title of school bully for himself. Sam’s protective older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) learns of this and alerts his buddies, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley). Marty, who leads the trio of older boys, devises a plan to get revenge on George, adhering to good-hearted Sam’s rule that “we want to hurt him without really hurting him.” Clyde, who won’t smoke pot and is often disregarded by Marty and Rocky, goes along with it because going along with things is what he does.
The plan — which we do not learn immediately — involves a river-rafting trip on a Saturday afternoon. George is invited on the pretense that, despite the torture, Sam actually likes him and wants to be friends. Sam’s soon-to-be girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder) comes along, too, to provide femininity and conscience.
Almost at once, we feel sorry for George. He simply wants to be liked, and when his forceful personality turns people off rather than winning them over, he resorts to brutality as a defense mechanism. Sam, guided by Millie, wants to call the humiliation plan off. But Marty — who has a brief but telling scene with his older, abusive brother (Brandon Williams) — is determined to go through with it. The heated discussion among the six kids on the river leads to unfortunate events with dire consequences, which I will not spoil for you here.
It is essentially a morality play, a melodrama designed to teach lessons and suggest proper courses of action. What makes it compelling, even frightening, is the realization that what’s “right” is so often contrary to human nature. The characters’ natural reactions are completely sympathetic and sometimes completely immoral, too.
I like all of the performances — Rory Culkin’s sweet Sam, Ryan Kelley’s meek Clyde, Scott Mechlowicz’s macho, insecure Marty, and so on. I’m not sure I believe everything that occurs in the film, but I definitely buy the way things turn out in the end. If this smart, psychologically suspenseful film is any indication, Jacob Estes is a new voice worth listening to.
B (1 hr., 27 min.; )