|Sunday, Nov 29, 2015, 11:24:32 AM|
Thursday, September 16, 2004
Child's prey: Mean Creek deftly explores the savagery of children
By Anthony Del Valle
Set in a small Oregon town, Mean Creek covers such familiar emotional territory that you may find yourself groaning at how tired its synopsis sounds. But first-time feature director Jacob Aaron Estes breathes life into the story through his talent for details. Even though we pretty much know where things are heading, much of this movie feels like a fresh vision.
The first image is of an overweight boy, George (Josh Peck), peeking into a video camera that he's apparently hoping will record his prowess at basketball. A moment later, while George is busy dribbling on school grounds, the small-boned Sam (Rory Culkin) looks into the same camera, moves it and is immediately beaten up by the incensed George. We see most of this action through the eye of George's stationary camera, and it seems at first to be just an inconsequential visual hook. It winds up being the incident that drives the movie's action.
Sam's older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), figures it's time to teach the school bully a lesson--not a serious hurt, just a little humiliation that he'll never forget. He enlists the aid of a small pack of friends, with the only female being Sam's crush, Millie (Carly Schroeder). They invite George onto a boating trip, in honor of Sam's birthday. The plan is to strip off his clothes, throw him overboard, and force him home naked. As you can imagine, things go very wrong. The prank fuels a catastrophe that forever changes the lives of all involved.
Obviously, we've been in this boat of adolescent self-discovery before, but Estes' ability to make rich moment-by-moment events helps things feel new. He shows a genuine understanding of young people's behavior. When Sam and Rocky are horsing around together, their jocular yet competitive manner feels authentic. When the group hooks up with George the day of the outing, it's chilling how friendly yet edgy their words are. They're enjoying the effort they have to make to hide their deviousness. (Anyone who's ever as a child been the victim of a group betrayal may find these scenes painful to watch.) When bad boy Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), the oldest, pulls rank, you can sense his need to dominate. He face seems always poised for bitch-smacking violence. Yet it's horrifying to watch how quickly he crumbles into subjugation when his older brother, Kile (Branden Williams), physically abuses him. (It's equally jolting--and believable--when we see how loyal Kile is later when his brother desperately needs him.)
Estes' screenplay is authentic and understated. We get to like George when we witness his gentler side, but we never fall in love with him. The kid remains a pain in the ass. We get glimpses into the lives of most of the young characters, particularly the unhappy ones, and although our empathy is encouraged, Estes never excuses their unacceptable behavior. There's an implied parallel between the barbaric acts of the kids and the savagery of nature, but it's never spelled out. You never feel preached to.
The ensemble cast (most familiar faces from children's television shows) is amazingly consistent. There's not one actor-y person in the bunch.
Estes occasionally loses his sureness of tone. The immediate aftermath of the tragedy comes across as too self-consciously arty. The behaviors of the characters--even the camera angles--seem forced during those moments in order to make a thematic point. Marty's character is written a tad overwrought; his action in the film's climax feels tacked on. And it's hard to completely forgive that although the plot is intentionally minimalist, it's too often undernourished. But "Mean Creek" is our introduction to a major talent. It's a beautifully unsettling movie that gently forces you to confront your own savagery.