Mean Creek (2004)
Written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes
Produced by Rick Rosenthal, Susan Johnson, Hagai Shaham
Cinematography by Sharone Meir
Edited by Madeleine Gavin
Music by tomandandy
Paramount DVD (1:29)
“If you don’t know what to think, then you probably shouldn’t be making decisions.”
I’ve rarely heard Mean Creek (2004) mentioned in discussions of movies about teens. When the title does come up, it’s usually overshadowed by talk of films like Boyhood, Moonlight, and - even after all these years - Stand By Me. Part of the reason is that these three films are higher-profile ventures from major studios, stars, or both. Mean Creek was independently financed, created by a first-time director, and whose most-recognizable star was 14-year-old Rory Culkin (who looks even younger in the film). Mean Creek’s strength comes from its excellent performances, an unflinching script, and a refusal to pander to the clichés we normally see in teen films. Maybe it’s too smart for its own good. More people should see it and talk about it.
In the film’s opening shot, we see an overweight boy named George (Josh Peck) shooting baskets at school. George has set up a video camera to film himself, but when Sam (Culkin), moves it, George goes ballistic, cursing and beating up Sam. Once Sam gets home, it’s obvious he’s been in a fight, so when his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) asks him about it, Sam tells him what happened. We’re not surprised to discover that George is a bully who easily outweighs his other classmates and, based on a history of getting away with bullying, is probably either from a privileged or powerful family (or both). Angered at what’s happened to his little brother, Rocky shares the story with his buddies Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), who help him come up with a plan for revenge. Sam goes along with it, as long as nobody really gets hurt.
The best movies about kids and their problems usually avoid the presence of adults. The world of Mean Creek, set in a small Oregon town, is one in which kids probably should involve their parents, but don’t. But we can’t blame the kids. In many of these films, it’s usually unclear whether the parents are off in the world of adults, distant, or just don’t want to deal with their kids’ problems. Adults are present in the film, but only peripherally. The film’s writer and first-time director Jacob Aaron Estes understands that in order for the film to work, he has to construct a world seen through the kids’ eyes, not the eyes of their parents. In doing so, Estes makes some very smart decisions.
Case in point: In order for his plan of revenge to work, Rocky has to convince George that he’s been invited to a birthday party for Sam. Rocky does this by calling George on the phone with Sam, Clyde, and Marty all listening in the same room. In a typical teenage film, we might see back-and-forth shots of Rocky and George on the phone as Rocky attempts to convince George to come to the party. We’d probably also see the other guys whooping it up in the background or making faces or some other distractions. Instead, we never see George or hear his reactions, and the other guys in the room listen with rapt attention, wondering if the bully’s going to fall for it. Rocky’s invitation is so slick and natural you wonder how often (and how easily) he’s lied to people before this. Even though we can’t hear his responses, this scene also conveys (through his eventual acceptance) that George probably has never had such an invitation before. The part of George’s mind that’s telling him “This is too good to be true, you idiot” is being overcome by the part that says, “This could turn into something you’ve never experienced: friendship.”
Without giving too much away, we soon learn more about George, and while this knowledge doesn’t excuse his bullying, we come to better understand him. We also better understand tough-guy Marty and the demons he’s wrestling with, as well as Clyde’s reluctance to involve himself in any type of conflict. Sam’s relationship with his brother Rocky is developed and we’re impressed that Rocky would go to such trouble for his brother. Yet we wonder, just how far will he go?
Perhaps the most refreshing relationship is between Sam and his new girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder). Sam has promised her a surprise for their first date, but Millie realizes too late that she’s become an unwilling participant in this revenge plot. As adults, we know that first loves are often looked back on with fondness, nostalgia, or even humorous embarrassment, but rarely do they remind us of a turning point that could potentially devastate our lives.
Estes makes several bold moves throughout the film, but perhaps the boldest occurs in its final minutes. He understands that a tidy ending that wraps everything up nicely just won’t work here. What happens during the second half of the film forces the audience to come to grips with what these characters have done, how they’re going to go on with the rest of their lives, and what the quality of those lives will be like.
Mean Creek does more than simply address the problem of bullying. It goes deeper, not in any way excusing bullying, but seeking to understand why it happens and showing one response that creates far more problems than it solves. It’s a film about kids that kids should see, but its R-rating puts up barriers that seek to prevent it from being seen by those who need to see it most.
I would love to see a Blu-ray release of the film with the cast members returning to talk about how they felt about the movie then and what it means to them now. The DVD features an audio commentary with Estes, cinematographer Sharone Meir, editor Madeleine Gavin, and actors Josh Peck, Trevor Morgan, Ryan Kelley and Carly Schroeder. The DVD was released in 2005, so very little time or distance had passed between the filming and the commentary (which is quite good). Today in 2018, the youngest of the actors, Schroeder, is now 27. Enough time has passed for these actors to have gained valuable life experience, but not so much that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be kids. Since the film was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for a theatrical release, making it quite grainy, we might never see a Blu-ray edition, but if we do, it almost demands a “looking back” segment from its cast and crew.
Most of the talented young actors in the film are still working. Estes directed the dark comedy The Details in 2011, which grossed a disappointing $100,000. He has a new film, Only You, now in production. Someone as talented as Estes should have the opportunity to direct more than three films in 14 years, but Hollywood is a brutal place. In the meantime, I hope you’ll seek out Mean Creek, which is currently steaming on Amazon Prime.
Photos: Fanpop, DVD Beaver, Basement Rejects, Filmous