As a kid, Judge Jesse Ataide hated swimming lessons. Now, the childhood pain all seems worth it.
Rocky: "Why would it be his fate?"
After playing at several prestigious film festivals (including Sundance and Cannes), Mean Creek seemed poised for success on the American indie circuit. That is, until the MPAA slapped an R rating on it for foul language, causing outrage from those hoping that its frank look at a group of teenagers facing major moral choices would be accessible to the young audience for whom it was intended.
Facts of the Case
After being beaten up by the school bully, Sam (Rory Culkin, Signs), along with his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan, The Glass House), makes a plan to exact revenge. Sam, not comfortable with striking back at the bully in a way that would physically hurt him, comes up with a way to humiliate him while on a boat trip on a nearby river. But the prank goes horribly wrong, and all those involved (which includes Sam's girlfriend and Rocky's close friends) are forced to face the horrible reality of their actions.
Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes spent seven years developing the script that would become Mean Creek, his debut film. It was well worth the wait, as the result of his long creative process is a quiet, meditative, and deceptively simple examination of moral choices in light of friendship and peer pressure. On the most generic of levels, Mean Creek could be said to be the latest installment in the tired "coming of age" genre, but the honesty and intensity in which Estes and his young cast attack the story elevates what easily could have been a low-budget retread of familiar material (think Stand By Me, River's Edge, and Bully).
Much of the film's credibility springs from the subtle and natural performances of the young cast. Rory Culkin brings sadness, vulnerability, and quiet intelligence to his role as the victimized boy. Scott Mechlowizc, best known for Eurotrip at this point in time, gives a frightening performance as an emotionally wounded rebel that proves he should stick to drama in the future. The bully, Josh Peck (Spun), somehow manages to be sympathetic while making it obvious why the others want to strike back at him for his vicious behavior. The talented actors Trevor Morgan, Carly Shroeder (Port Charles, The Lizzie McGuire Movie), and Ryan Kelley all lend quiet support that turns the film into a surprisingly effective ensemble effort. Though many of them are playing recognizable stereotypes (the bully, the victim, the "bad boy," the well-meaning girlfriend), they are given small moments throughout the film that make each of their characters three-dimensional and painfully human.
Visually, Mean Creek is also quite accomplished (especially for a low-budge feature), taking a documentary-like approach that enhances the naturalness of the acting. The rushing river, long a symbol for the journey of life, is stunningly photographed: at times it captures the sheer majesty of natural beauty, but always makes sure the harsh and ominous aspects of the forest are never out of mind. The minimalist score by composer tomandandy is also quite evocative, and complements the growing tension of the film as the sunny afternoon gives way to disaster and despair.
But what really distinguishes Mean Creek from the crowd is its unflinching examination of an uncomfortable moral dilemma. The film presents a situation that offers no easy solutions, and the viewer, along with the characters, is forced to consider what is the best way to deal with it. Who is to blame? Is there somebody to blame? With so much tension arising out of the issues raised throughout its running time, it is probably inevitable that the ultimate resolution of the film is its least satisfying element.
Paramount Studios, which stuck with the film through its rating difficulties, gives Mean Creek a respectable presentation. The anamorphic image is clean and bright, and the only grain appears during several scenes caught on one of the character's video camera. There are two audio options (English 5.1 Surround and English 2.0 Surround), neither of which is fully utilized since the film is dialogue-centric. The surround use is limited to noises from the environment during the central boat trip.
The commentary with the cast and crew, the main extra, is a mixed bag. At first, it seems the track is going to be rather self-indulgent, the kind of commentary where the participants seem to be more concerned with having a good time together as friends than actually helping the viewer understand the film on a deeper level. Thankfully, after a while the contributions of the young actors are minimized (since with the exception of the very funny Josh Peck, they have very little to add), and the director/writer, editor, and cinematographer begin to explain various aspects of the creation of the film. The only other extra is the "Storyboard Gallery," which includes several preliminary sketches of several scenes in the film.
The combination of fine acting, precise character development, and insightful writing in Mean Creek provides for a film experience that isn't easy to shake off. It's a shame that young people weren't allowed easier access to this film, as it not only well made and impeccably acted, it leads the viewer to consider issues much bigger than the film itself.
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• Commentary with Cast and Crew
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