DVD Review of Mean Creek

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/27/06


  Mean Creek is a very Stand By Me-like film, also set in Oregon, that deals with young peopleís reactions to death. Unlike that earlier film, set in the 1950s, this contemporary 2004 film by first time filmmaker Jacob Estes is quite a bit darker, almost a teen Deliverance. It follows the machinations by four boys to get revenge on a fat kid for his beating up of one of them. The intended victim is a fat bully named George (Josh Peck, from Nickelodeonís The Amanda Show), who has obvious mental problems that cause him to live in his own world and react violently to the world. The film opens with his bullying a shrimpy blond kid named Sam (Rory Culkin). This causes Rory and his brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) to scheme with Rockyís two other pals, Clyde (Ryan Kelley)- who is sexually sensitive due to his two gay fathers, and bad boy Marty (Scott Mechlowicz, from Lizzie McGuire), from a shattered home. Marty is the oldest in the group, and most eager to vent his rage on fat George, because he in turn is bullied by his older brother Kyle (Brandon Williams) and Kyleís pal Jasper (Heath Lourwood), much the way the young boys of Stand By Me (also four in number) were bullied by Kiefer Sutherlandís band of misfits.

  The four scheme to lure George out on a boat trip down a river, for Samís birthday, then strip him naked, toss him in the water, and force him to run home without clothes. Along for the trip, but unknowing the plan, is Samís little blond girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder). When she finds out about the plan she objects, and Sam also has a change of heart- as he sees George as not all evil. Eventually all the kids save Marty agree. Out on the river the kids play a game of Truth Or Dare, and the usual childish sexual garbage goes on. Then, after George gets rowdy, Marty reveals what their plan was, and Georgeís abusiveness kicks into gear, and he taunts Marty for his fatherís suicide. As Marty attempts to go after George, the others intervene and Rocky accidentally knocks George into the river. He canít swim, hits his head, and drowns before Rocky can save him. They pull him to the shore, and Carly tries to resuscitate George with CPR. She fails, and Marty suggests they bury the body, and pretend that nothing happened. Clyde objects, but the others reluctantly agree when they fear they have committed a crime, not an accident. Marty, though, is worried that his brother and Jasper, who saw George with them, might snitch, but heís confident theyíll cover for him and the others.

  Up until this point the film is nearly flawless. It is well-written, taut, beautifully filmed, and crisply paced. All the young actors are marvelous and believable in dialogue that can be easily imagined as coming from callow mouths. But, the decision to bury the body makes no sense, and is too Hollywood, making the narrative of the film dependent upon the most stupid action possible. Of course, when the kids get home, fissures erupt between them, and the three other boys and Carly side against Marty, and say theyíll spill the beans. Marty then loses his mind, goes home with his brother, who gives him his gun, and Marty goes off to rob a convenience store to make a run for Mexico. This makes no sense on any level, save as a bad plot twist. The others then go to Georgeís home to tell his mother what happened, and then confess and take the cops to the body. The film ends with a narration George made on his personal camera recorder, which he spent the whole film using, intercut with the recovery of his body. If only the kids had hashed out their dilemma and decided to go to the cops this could have been a film for the ages. As it is, itís still a very good film, despite the lowest common denominator script flaws.

  The DVD has no features, save a commentary with the director, some crew, and the four kids who played George, Rocky, Clyde, and Millie. There are no real revelations, although Josh Peck shows some humor and insight into a young actorís preparation for a role. The film realistically shows the layers of any social pecking order, as well the hypocrisies, and does so with near perfect juvenile dialogue. These kids are not airheads, and even George and Marty- the two presumably dumbest and morally least worthy- have redeeming qualities. The film also nicely captures the world of children by having adult figures be almost nonexistent, ala the comic strip Peanuts.

  Yet, the film succeeds mostly due to its young actors. Peck, as George, displays a truly complex character- a child at once seemingly an idiot savant, a prodigy, a sweet, noble boy, and a budding psychopath. He is constantly measuring others in his life to see where he stands. Peck even acknowledges this nuance in the commentary- a terrific observation for someone so young. His character also lives a life of relative privilege the other kids do not, and is the only one aware of the dangers of drinking and driving. Culkin shows that his older brother Kieran is not the only good actor in his clan. Schroeder, as the only girl, really shines as a voice of reason, as does Kelleyís character, Clyde. Even Mechlowicz shows depth in his scenes with his characterís brother, and reacting to Georgeís taunts at his characterís father. He even has a mix of a James Dean/Brad Pitt appeal, and could be a major film star/heartthrob of the future. Only Morganís Rocky is not particularly memorable- most likely because he is neither bullied nor bully, strong-willed nor well-principled, and that may be due more to the role than the actor. That said, while itís the least well-written part in the film, itís far above most standard teen roles.

  The title is misleading, for the creek they travel on is not mean, merely indifferent, unless one looks at the title as metaphorically implying that the characters are at the mean of their ethical centers and choices. The filmís also one of the better representations of male (not macho) attitudes in formation, and never gets too self-indulgent in male ritual, due to its lean hour and a half length. Overall, this is a film eminently worth seeing, but one that also underscores how asinine the Motion Picture Association of Americaís censorious ratings system is. This film is given an R, due to the kidsí use of curse words, when this is exactly the kind of film that kids should see, while gory, gratuitous violence-filled tripe gets a PG-13 rating. The density of our nationís leaders is frightening in its lack of any complexity. The cursing is used perfectly in context, and very naturally, and never gratuitously. Any kid the age of the actors has already said ĎFuckí ten thousand times in their lives, so the idea that the MPAA is shielding anyone from anything is a joke!

  Rent or buy this DVD and you will likely not be disappointed, despite the couple of missteps near the end, and even the first of them is almost redeemed by the scenes of the kids confessing, after hashing out their ethical views. Were more films as good and serious as this both the Right and Left Wings of this country might stop trying to censor art. One can hope, eh?

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