Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mean Creek

Discussing Mean Creek (2004) is a bit of a challenge for me. It came highly recommended from another movie buff who emphasized that I avoid reading any plot summaries. Seeing the movie myself, I can agree that trying to summarize the film or give someone else an idea of what it's about would necessitate divulging certain developments that occur fairly far into the running time. The best I can do is say I will try not spoil anything, but if anything, Mean Creek is more about its characters and their behavior than the intricacies of its plot, so maybe I'm more worried about it than I should be.

Mean Creek could be described as a cross between Stand by Me and Deliverance. One day, Sam (Rory Culkin) gets beat up by middle school bully George (Josh Peck). Sam turns to his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) to help get back at George, and they enlist Rocky's friends Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) in a scheme to lure George on a rafting trip in the woods where they can humiliate him. Along for ride but initially not privy to the group's ulterior plan is Millie (Carly Schroeder), Sam's girlfriend. The plan eventually sets in motion, but then, things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Growing up, at best, can be a time of discovery, learning, and innocence, but as we all know, it can also be a time of cruelty, shame, and resentment. Too often, children and teenagers can act as wrong as adults, but unlike adults who should know better, kids can be unknowingly horrible to each other or at the very least oblivious to the hurt they cause. The best we can hope for is they be good most of the time and eventually grow out of the bad behavior.  Bullying is currently a hot topic in the news these days, but as the movie, shows it's not always a black-and-white scenario.

Mean Creek is a movie in which all the characters are both victims and perpetrators of mean acts. George certainly fits the category of bully. The film opens with him beating up Sam for touching his camera, bruising up his face pretty badly. He's big, loud, obnoxious, and self-centered, and we're told how he has been held back in school and hurt others apart from Sam. But then we also see at times he's like an overgrown puppy eager to please. Invited along on what he's told is Sam's birthday celebration, he brings him a gift and seems to be trying to get along. His father is apparently not in the picture (we only meet his mother), and we also learn he has some sort of learning disability (I believe it's dyslexia, but it's never stated explicitly). Nothing really excuses his behavior, but he is drawn more complexly than one would expect, and I certainly felt sorry for him. Even if things hadn't gotten wrong, the planned revenge against him would have crossed the line.

That complexity extends to the other characters, and it becomes apparent he's not the only bully figure. Marty, who is always knocking Clyde for having two gay dads, is only along for the trip as an excuse to humiliate someone he considers lesser than him. When the group decides to call off the prank, he's the only who refuses and in fact forces them to a point of no return. He drinks and smokes and always seem angry, but he too is a victim of bullying; his older brother is especially mean to him, and he's especially sensitive to talk about his father, who committed suicide. He and his brother live in a squalid trailer, and school is a less attractive option than shooting empty liquor bottles.

Even the ostensibly "good" characters have a nasty streak to them. Millie, when she learns the group's plan, is appalled and pressures to Sam to call it off, which he does. But when Marty tries to force the prank through, it is Millie who relents first when George continues to act abrasive and vulgar. Unlike George, who it could be argued doesn't know better, Millie clearly understands the cruelty she partakes in, and it's a chilling moment when she tells Marty to continue with a game of Truth or Dare to initiate the plan. It's one thing to defend the well-meaning, slow-witted fat kid who's a little rough around the edges, but when he tries peeking up your skirt with his camera, tells dirty jokes, and acts like a pig, suddenly a little payback doesn't seem so bad.

I said the movie reminded me of Deliverance (characters discovery shocking truths about themselves whilst on a rural river trip) and Stand by Me (kids in the woods making life discoveries), but in retrospect, it also draws a little from Lord of the Flies in presenting a world in which children and teenagers act without adult supervision. There is not one significant adult character in Mean Creek, and there is no effective authority stopping any of these kids from bad behavior. No teacher or principal intervenes on George's bullying, the loss of a father has surely scarred Marty to the point he takes it out on others, and no parent is ever shown keeping tabs on their kids or monitoring their activity. Without some sort of moral guidance, these teens learn the hard way about actions and consequences.

Written and directed by first-time director Jacob Aaron Estes, Mean Creek is not a thriller but a powerful and haunting drama. The performances by all the young actors (who actually look the age of the characters they portray) work extremely well, and Estes does an excellent job of capturing both these kids day-to-day lives at home and school as well as their fateful trip on the river and its fallout. It's really effective.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written. Very few movies have had the emotional effect on me that "Mean Creek" did, which is why I recommended it. After I saw the events of the last five minutes, I was so crushed that I sat motionless through the credits, then 15 minutes of the DVD menu screen before I was able to get up and turn it off. I'm disappointed it didn't get more attention.

    Thanks for the review.