- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

”Mean Creek,” a tense, grimy digital-video production by writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes, is marred by what I like to call the Captain Queeg cop-out.

It gives us a monster and asks us to forgive the monster. It’s a tricky business for any writer, and Mr. Estes, a first-time filmmaker who emerged from the ranks of the Sundance Film Festival, nearly pulls it off.

The jungle this monster inhabits is adolescence, and it’s a war of all against all.

When first glimpsed shooting baskets during recess, George (Josh Peck) looks like a pitiable middle school schlub: overweight, uncoordinated and seemingly friendless.

But when Sam (Rory Culkin) fiddles with George’s video camera, George lunges into a violent fury, tackling his much smaller classmate to the ground and pounding his face.

George, it’s revealed, is the school bully and, here, the focal point of an after-school morality play set in a small, working-class Oregon town where children aren’t furnished with cell phones, Palm Pilots or Instant Messaging accounts.

On the day of a fateful river ride — a Saturday group outing that Sam’s brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) has orchestrated to stage a humiliating prank on George — Josh is outfitted in a red sweatshirt and gray military fatigues. He is simultaneously an aggressor and a fat, juicy target.

It turns out that the boy isn’t all nasty; he’s surprisingly generous and witty and admits to having problems that might explain, if not mitigate, his hot temper. The revelation evokes sympathy in the other children, including Sam’s perceptive young girlfriend (Carly Shroeder).

Until the point that this prank veers out of control, Mr. Estes and his talented cast combine for a compelling, precisely calibrated group portrait. Rocky’s pals Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) have insecurities of their own that evoke opposite reactions to George’s company.

Clyde, the sensitive one, is continuously ribbed for having homosexual guardians. Marty (Mr. Mechlowicz shoots for the young, mercurial Brad Pitt with his performance) has yet to come to grips with a violent family history.

As in his breakthrough performance in “You Can Count on Me” (2000), Rory is penetratingly sad and gentle.

These are interesting, crunchy characters, but Mr. Estes runs out of things to say with them. The movie skids into a kind of “Outsiders”-style teen potboiler by way of the backwoods chills of “Deliverance.”

Mr. Estes recovers his original vision in the movie’s somewhat preachy resolution, which is aimed at children who, unless accompanied by an adult, won’t be permitted to see “Mean Creek.”

The movie shows teens drinking beer and sharing pot; its dialogue occasionally is sexually frank. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, I’d say it’s appropriate for children aged 12 to 16 to see. The lives it reflects are theirs, not their parents’.

In fact, adults here are almost nonexistent, an accidental commentary that speaks loudest of all.

**1/2

TITLE: “Mean Creek”

RATING: R (Profanity; sexual references; teen drug and alcohol use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes. Produced by Susan Johnson, Rick Rosenthal and Hagai Shaham. Cinematography by Sharone Meir. Original music by Ethan Gold.

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.meancreekmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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