Mean Creek

Once synonymous with cheap gags and over-exposure, the Culkin name has regained some of its respectability in recent years. MacCaulay stopped hanging out at the Neverland Ranch (mostly) and along with his brothers started doing smart, risky indie movies. The latest Culkin foray into finely crafted independent filmmaking is courtesy of little brother Rory, in the smart, bully-sympathetic film Mean Creek. Sam (Rory Culkin) is sick of being beaten up by George. Twice Sam’s size and several years older, George has been held back grade after grade. He takes out his frustration by snapping and beating up on kids smaller than him. He’s a big kid, so that’s just about everyone. To get revenge, Sam enlists the help of his older brother and his friends to ensnare George in his trap. They invite George (Josh Peck) to join them on a boating trip down the river. Once they’re out in the water, they’ll dare him to get in the water naked, and then abandon him to run home without clothes. George, friendless and alone immediately agrees to the trip.

But once he’s there, the kids lose the stomach for it. George isn’t a monster; he’s just a big, fat, lonely kid with a learning disability. Prone to uncontrollable fits of rage, he sometimes lashes out at others, but otherwise he’s an awkward, sad figure desperate to fit in. Josh Peck is simply amazing as George and gives a performance both nuanced and gut wrenching. George has dreams, and hopes and plans for the future. He longs to make others understand, but doesn’t know how to do it. That’s not to say he’s a saint, for everything the film does to make us like George, it seems to do something else to remind us how volatile and hurtful he can be. But he’s a three dimensional, human being. Once Sam realizes this, he calls the whole thing off. He’s too late.

What happens is both shattering and shocking as a small group of kids’ lives end up being changed forever. Mean Creek is a fantastic film of emotion and introspection. It never excuses George, but merely suggests that perhaps the obvious fat kid isn’t the only bully here. Mean Creek is genius in simplistic, character driven filmmaking carried on the shoulders of a truly amazing group of child actors. Paramount has delivered a pretty basic, single disc DVD release here. Unfortunately, the disc starts beating you down early, with movie trailers that cannot be skipped. At least they let you fast forward… and just in case you decide you want to watch them later, they’ve made them available from the menu screen as well. Promotional overkill. You could have at least included the Mean Creek trailer guys.

Once you fast forward past the omnipresent advertisements, you’ll find the movie, a setup menu (useful only to you home theater freaks and anyone who likes subtitles), good old scene selection, and the DVD collector’s much beloved Special Features section. This is where you’ll find the repetitious previews I mentioned earlier. It’s also home to a storyboard gallery. Does anyone like these? I suppose they’re nice to include, but I’ve never found anyone willing to sit and flip through one. The only Special Feature really available here is a commentary track.

Luckily, it’s a great commentary track. It features, in name at least, director Jacob Estees, cinematographer Sharone Meir, editor Madeleine Gavin, and actors Josh Peck, Trevor Morgan, Ryan Kelly, and Carly Schroeder. Sounds crowded doesn’t it? It isn’t. Someone had the sense to keep everyone except Estees, Gavin, and Josh Peck quiet. While the others may chime in once in awhile, the commentary is primarily narrated by the director and the cinematographer, with Peck punching in a funny line or two every few minutes just to spice it up. Good blanket advice: keep the French guy quiet. It works brilliantly. Estees and Gavin have a nice feel for how commentary should be done, offering a nice mix of on set anecdotes, tales of financial troubles, and little lessons about how the shot certain aspects of their low budget film. It’s truly enjoyable, and while I often let commentary tracks play in the background while I’m working on something else, I found it impossible not to sit up and pay attention to this one.

If Paramount would’ve simply avoided force feeding me movie trailers I’d be pretty happy with this release. As it is, I can’t praise any disc that won’t let me get right to the menu when I pop it in. Still, the commentary is definitely worth a look and the film is a wonderful, and thought provoking surprise. If like most people you missed it in theaters, make seeing Mean Creek on DVD a priority.