Rated R, 89 min. Directed by Jacob Aaron Estes. Starring Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck, Carly Schroeder.
Like a kinder, gentler Bully, Mean Creek hinges on the bullied fighting back against the aggressor, but offers a more expansive examination of aggression and, even more significantly, passivity. The kids in Mean Creek have a predator/prey pecking order, with middle schooler Sam (Culkin) perched on the food chain’s bottom rung. In the first few minutes, he’s roundly thrashed by George (Peck), your prototypical mean fat kid; interestingly, we see the beating from the point of view of George’s DV camera, the first of many instances in which the perspective shifts to unexpected places, as does the audience’s sympathy. As Sam, a sweet but passive kid, licks his wounds at home, his big brother Rocky begins to hatch a plan, with the help of his high school friends Martin (Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Kelley), to deliver George some much-deserved comeuppance. The four boys, along with Sam’s unwitting girlfriend, Millie (Schroeder), lure George out to an Oregon river for a Saturday of boating, but their plans for revenge derail when, whaddya know, turns out the mean fat kid has moments of kindness, too, and an aching need to belong. In moments of quiet, George has a special look in his eyes, the look of a dreamer, which makes it all the more shocking when he morphs into bully stance, screaming "faggot" at Clyde and unleashing an awful fury. (As George, perhaps the toughest role in the uniformly challenging lot, Peck is a knock-out; the rest of the ensemble cast of all teenagers is equally top-notch.) The question, in Estes’ intelligent meditation on the gradations of meanness and just what depths humans will go to when backed into a corner, is how different George really is from the rest of the kids – do they just do a better job of tamping down their hatreds and insecurities? Had they the strength or the means, would they exert their power over another, too? Ultimately, Mean Creek has less to do with George, and everything to do with the desperate measures that kids – and especially younger siblings – take to seize some control in a world that grants them very little. In his feature debut, writer/director Estes has crafted, out of the ugly stuff of revenge and misdirected violence and misplaced blame, a remarkably compassionate picture. He consistently confounds expectations – this is a world where the mean fat kid giggles happily about it being "a beautiful day for a boat trip with buddies," while pretty little Millie spears a snail with a grim look and a Swiss Army knife – but Estes also stays true to the hard facts of life, facts the kids in Mean Creek learn all too well on a Saturday afternoon on the river.
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