Jacob Aaron Estes’ 2004 film Mean Creek is, at the outset, what seems to be a simple, predictable coming-of-age tale. In reality, though, it’s much more than that. You could say that it’s merely an anti-bullying film, but there’s more at play here than just that, too. Mean Creek is an intimate narrative hinged upon revenge, peer pressure and its repercussions, and ultimately, morals.
As the film begins, our middle school-aged protagonist, Sam (Rory Culkin), receives a shiny, brand new black eye on the schoolyard, courtesy of George, a bully who has set his sights on Sam. A young Josh Peck (pre-dating his Nickelodeon stardom on Drake and Josh) portrays George, giving an incredible performance — one that should have led him to many more equally engaging roles. George is a character that you’ll immediately hate, but over the course of the film begin to warily sort of like, and in the end simply feel sorry for. It’s an exceptional character arc that, especially due to Peck’s remarkable performance, begs to be seen through.
Our story picks up after the confrontation, with Sam attempting an explanation of the injury to his older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan). Rocky proceeds to bring the story up to his friends, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley), and the trio decides it’s about time someone got back at George.
Interestingly, the antagonist role runs much deeper than just George, even though he may be the initial target of your distaste. Rocky’s friend Marty is far worse, even being a complete asshole to his own friends. His past is troubled, growing up in an abusive household. And the present isn’t much better for him, either, as he gets similarly harmful treatment from his own older brother. Perhaps its cliché, but Estes is still able to effectively exhibit this cycle, even down to George’s pitiful attempts to impress Marty.
Although he initially wants to have his revenge, Sam is a bit skeptical about the plan his brother and his friends have come up with. “You know, if we hurt him, we’re just as bad as him,” he remarks. But this is the world of a middle-schooler. It’s a world where the adults — society’s so-called “authority figures” — can’t do anything to help. You deal with your problems yourself, your own way. Didn’t we believe as much when we were kids?
Sam’s hesitance doesn’t last long, and our protagonists take matters into their own hands. The plan consists of tricking George into playing Truth or Dare, daring him to strip naked, and jump into the river — all the while stealing his clothes and leaving him to trek butt-naked back home.
Nothing too horrible, right? A relatively harmless prank to get back at the bully and teach him a lesson. A vengeance that, when Sam walks into school the following week, his classmates will applaud him for. But, of course, these things never go exactly as planned, do they?
Writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes does an exquisite job in the third act by peeking into the minds of children and teenagers in a final half hour that’s especially emotionally resonant. It’s a dour, intelligent finale that complements the subtle opening, and confrontational middle.
Mean Creek is a fantastic film supported by a phenomenal cast of young actors effectively portraying their well-written, relatable characters. Its strengths are plenty, led by fine direction, wonderful cinematography, and a story that goes beyond the typical coming-of-age drama we’ve all witnessed far too many times.
I truly believe Mean Creek is an important piece of modern film. It’s a film that carries an exceptionally poignant theme, unfolding its many intricate layers over its scant 90-minute length. If you venture into Mean Creek, you’ll find a riveting and realistic tale about youth’s dark side, and one that’ll most definitely leave you in a state of reflection upon completion.
Editor’s Note: Do not search “Mean Creek” on Google, as one of the first results will spoil the film’s climax. I’m also not including the trailer here, since it shows many of the major scenes. You’re really best off going into this film knowing as little as possible.
Mean Creek is available to stream on Netflix, as well as other on-demand rental services.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor