When I was 12-years-old, I had a dramatic run in with a teenage bully that would change my life forever. Fortunately the altercation with Sandy Corona in my middle school gymnasium never came to blows – I stepped up, mustering what little self-confidence I had stored in my prepubescent brain, and told her if she was going to hand feed me my nose on a silver platter that she’d either need to do it or stop flapping her gums. Needless to say, what happened 17 years ago, taught me a valuable lesson about bullies and one I can’t help but hear reverberate through Mean Creek, the dynamic new film from first-time writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes.
Shot on location in the idyllic Oregonian wilderness, Mean Creek literally begins with a bang as shy, unassuming Sam (Rory Culkin) is beaten to a bloody pulp by George (Josh Peck), the overweight school bully, who pummels his victims like underage punching bags. But this time, George has messed with the wrong kid and to prove it, Sam’s older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan), and his best friends Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley), hatch a plan to show the ill-tempered 14-year-old exactly who's boss. To do this, the boys stage a bogus birthday bash, inviting George on a river rafting trip as a way of making nice with Sam. Of course, George, who is eager to gain acceptance from his peers, agrees to attend, unaware that revenge awaits him deep within the bucolic backwoods.
But when the group arrives on the Clackamas River with Millie (Carly Schroeder), Sam’s would-be girlfriend, their plot for retribution slowly begins to fade, and before they know it, George seems less like a bully and more like a lonely, misunderstood outsider, desperate for friends. Unfortunately truth has a way of rearing its ugly head when you least expect it, and Marty, the group’s thug-like leader, knows that better than anyone, initiating a dangerous game of truth-or-dare to test George’s sincerity.
Inspired by his real-life encounter with a San Francisco basketball player, Estes turns Mean Creek into less of a revenge film and more of an ominous portrait of good versus evil. But if you think the up-and-coming director, who won AFI’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, takes sides against his characters, portraying George as the fat, unlovable loser and Sam as the passive aggressive innocent, think again. Where Estes shines most as a director is in his innate ability to examine his character’s emotional flaws without judgment. A less intuitive writer/director probably would’ve painted his protagonist as a victim, especially considering what happened to him – the 31-year-old filmmaker was the target of a verbally abusive bully, who taunted him to the point of insanity – but not Estes. Instead, he blurs the line between right and wrong, taking viewers on a morally ambiguous journey toward adulthood with six complicated teenagers, who are as guilty as they are innocent.
Of course, Mean Creek never would’ve been as riveting were it not for its cast, a talented group of newcomers who bear a striking resemblance to the extraordinary ensemble from Stand by Me. Child star Carly Schroeder (Lizzie McGuire) conveys the despair of a sweet, young girl torn between her conscience and her duties as a friend and potential love interest, while Jerry O’Connell look-alike Josh Peck (Spun) is downright menacing, capturing the anger and loneliness of the emotionally erratic bully. But like his older brother Kieran in The Mighty, Rory Culkin undergoes Mean Creek’s most dramatic transformation, evolving from an insecure teenager into an accountable adult in less than 89 minutes.
Bottom line: If ever there was a film that parents and teens should see together, it’s Mean Creek, the thought-provoking masterpiece that painfully reminds viewers just how devastating revenge can be.