Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 1, 2004
Mean Creek
Starring Rory Culkin and Josh Peck. Written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes. Rated R.
River’s Edge

A bully gets what he deserves (or does he?) in the gently disturbing Mean Creek.


If you want to be perverse, you should see Mean Creek immediately after watching Without a Paddle. Both movies are about groups of guys who travel down a river in Oregon, but whereas Without a Paddle is Hollywood junk that plays the scenario lamely for comedy, Jacob Aaron Estes’ low-budget film offers up genuine shivers of horror and recognition.

The movie begins with a boy named Sam (Rory Culkin) being beaten up by George (Josh Peck), a fat kid who likes to pick on the smaller kids at school. Sam’s older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) gets together with his friends Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley), a past victim of George’s. They decide that the bully needs to be taught a lesson, so they invite him on a boating trip one Saturday, intending to tear his clothes off, toss him in the river, and make him walk home naked. The sixth person on the trip is Millie (Carly Schroeder), a girl Sam likes who doesn’t know about the plan until they’re on the water.

The best thing about the film is its conception of George. In close quarters with him, the conspirators quickly find him to be lonely, insecure, and desperate to make friends, having been held back at school because he’s dyslexic. All the boaters except Marty want to give up the plan, yet every time they (and we) start to like George, he does something to piss off everyone. Josh Peck captures the character’s goofy sense of humor particularly well, but he does not shy away from the role’s dark side. When George discovers the humiliating real reason why he’s been invited on the trip, he retaliates in spectacularly ugly fashion, lashing out blindly before zeroing in on Marty and hitting him where it hurts the most. “You know, when I heard that your dad splattered his brains all over the wall, I felt sorry for you,” he says measuredly. “But now, I kinda like it.”

George is soon floating dead in the river, and the varying degrees of horror felt by the teens and pre-teens around him is painfully real. The character is such a strong presence that the movie noticeably loses a step after he exits. Yet it’s never less than watchable, because writer-director Estes has such an eye for the natural beauties of the Oregon scenery and for the everyday details of these lower-middle-class characters’ lives. He also gets terrific, naturalistic performances out of his young cast, many of whom have Hollywood experience. The best ones are Schroeder, a portrait of innocence lost in a major way, and Mechlowicz as the group’s hard-bitten yet vulnerable alpha male. (If you remember this actor as the star of Eurotrip earlier this year, it’s gratifying to see him do so well in such a different setting.) Mean Creek doesn’t really break any new ground, and in the wrong hands it could have easily turned into an after-school special. Yet the unvarnished honesty and emotions in this little movie’s writing and acting give it a lingering power.

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