Mean Creek (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jacob Aaron Estes’ “Mean Creek” does something in special in that not once does it look down on its subjects: young people who must make a choice after something that cannot be taken back has occurred. The moral calamity these characters veer themselves through commands a seriousness that many movies about responsibility hope to delve into but ultimately only graze.
The only way to tell the story of what happens to these kids is with directness and simplicity. By stripping away potentially distracting elements like quirkiness in the dialogue, teleportation between perspectives, and turning on a soundtrack that gives a hint on how we should feel or what we should think, it makes room for introspection. We understand each of them–where they come from, their dominant personalities, what it is that hurts them most–and so we are given a chance to be honest with ourselves. We relate with them–even to the ones who appear to be the most despicable.
Sam (Rory Culkin) is attacked by George (Josh Peck) at school. Believing that fifteen minutes of detention for a week is not a good enough punishment for the wounds on Sam’s face, not to mention the social embarrassment, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), Sam’s older brother, is convinced that something else has to be done. But he is smart. Rocky tells Sam that they need to hurt fat George without really hurting him, at least not a kind of punishment that leaves a mark. So, a plan about a boating trip is made and George is invited. Since George does not have many friends, he happily accepts. He figures that maybe this time is a true opportunity for him to belong in a group.
There is a portentous aura that brews during the car ride to the river and when the boat is making its way downstream. Silence between dialogue is utilized when it counts. The water gently sloshing against the boat might as well be the kids’ guilt banging on drums. We wonder if they will ultimately go through with the plan. Sometimes the conversation is friendly. For a while, the game of truth or dare is full of laughs–as it should be. But there are other times when conversations turn ugly. George expresses his disgust about Clyde (Ryan Kelley) having two fathers at home. And then there is Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), the eldest of the group, whose life at home has been difficult since his father’s death. George has a knack for pushing everybody’s button. Something’s gotta give.
When the picture takes a dark turn, it is dealt with honesty. The kids who return home from the trip are changed somehow but the accompanying scenes are not predictable. There is no hyperbolic crying or screaming, just a feeling of exhaustion, disbelief, and wanting to hide from the world and oneself. The shame takes root and yet, surprisingly, I think it is what gives them a chance to recognize what should be done even if there is pressure to pretend like nothing important happened that day.
“Mean Creek” shares a similar consciousness with pictures like Larry Clark’s “Bully” and Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” because the story revolves around complicated choices before and after an irrevocable thing. In some situations, there is right and wrong. While choosing the wrong thing can be perceived as a moral tragedy, so is allowing oneself to become unaware of the fact that there is always an alternative.