Children and adolescents can sometimes be hopelessly cruel. That much we know. It seems that with the creation of the internet and social media the actions of children and adolescents seem to have gotten worse. That much we also know. But even the most devious children are not robbed of a tight, moral core which recognizes when something is wrong because of their actions. It's true, however, that some children possess nihilistic tendencies, but many children do indeed have a core that allows them to sympathize and recognize when they are in danger or at fault.
Jacob Aaron Estes' Mean Creek is a beautiful little tone-poem of a film, exploring the aforementioned concept with piercing reality and humanism. Through a band of tremendous character actors, ranging from ages ten and elven to seventeen and eighteen, Estes creates an intimate portrayal of coping with a tragedy when the blame is partially on you. This would be a difficult thing for an adult to stomach. For young adolescents, it's absolutely merciful on the mind and wellbeing.
The film opens with a young Sam (Rory Culkin) being beaten, harassed, and viciously assaulted by George (Josh Peck), a chubby dyslexic kid with no real friends. Despite his easy-going and often forgiving nature, Sam holds onto this beating and goes along with the plans of his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) and his friends Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) of getting George back by taking him out to the middle of a lake on a boat, initiating a game of truth or dare to get him to strip, and having him jump into the water and leaving him stranded.
Sam takes his young girl friend Millie (Carly Schroeder) along. A cute little blonde, she immediately doesn't approve of what him and his gang of buddies are doing. Even when Sam attempts to call off the plan, as George seems like a well-meaning, if troubled and uneven soul, the plan remains on as directed by the ringleader Marty, who eggs George on to the point where he exhibits the reflexes typical of a powerless and scared individual. He resorts to obscenities and vulgarity as a means of combating the brutal words being thrown his way and, as expected, it all ends tragically.
George winds up being accidentally pushed off the boat and drowning in the water. CPR and attempts to get the young kid to breath doesn't help either; George is now dead and the figurative blood is on the hands of the five kids involved. This is where Estes could've copped out and made a film that lead to basic moralizing and cheap, forgettable sentiment.
Instead, Estes persist through deeply disturbing material and shows just how ugly, senseless, and troubling murder is. He shows the impact it has on these adolescents and how they try and cope with the horrific action they've just committed. It's a tough subject and Estes doesn't sugarcoat it. Just like Larry Clark did with his exceptional film Bully, Estes devotes the last half-hour or so to how the characters deal with their actions, and avoids simplistic moralizing and easy ways out. He brought this material to light and doesn't take it back at all.
Moreover, the entire cast of young kids are terrific here, with specific highlights being Rory Culkin, who is given the difficult but rewarding role of playing the youngest kid. Culkin's Sam character needs to be aware of his actions but also has to have great difficulty portraying his feelings. His blank, expressionless face often penetrates the psyche of the viewer. The other particularly strong role is that of Josh Peck, who was working on Drake & Josh at this same time. Peck has another challenging role in the regard his action need to be incorrigible but his underlying personality needs to be easy to see and have the ability to second guess the decision to humiliate them. Peck's performance is surprisingly tender, especially during a vulgar key-scene on the boat.
Through the lens of low-budget filmmaking, Estes makes a completely immersing and exciting picture that works because of its depiction of murder, its meditative atmosphere, its gaggle of great character actors, and its intimate focus on the adolescents involved in this issue (we pleasantly do not have to suffer through scenes with adult characters who "don't understand." Mean Creek is an often terrifying picture but it need be seen by everyone.
Starring: Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck, Carly Schroeder. Directed by: Jacob Aaron Estes.