A fairly ordinary, machine-shopped Sundance résumé indie, seemingly balanced somewhere between half-realized ambition and inexperience, Jacob Aaron Estes’s Mean Creek is scaled just small enough to handle easily—little of the world is visible beyond the film’s six teenage protagonists. As in Peanuts, parents are almost entirely out of frame. Beginning with a playground beating and talk of prank revenge, the movie is fastidiously single-minded. Sam (Rory Culkin) gets whumped by George (Josh Peck), their school’s grotesquely fat and bellicose misfit-tyrant. Sam’s big bro Rocky (Trevor Morgan) conspires with his peckerwood-delinquent buddy Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), and soon they arrive at a plan that involves a rowboat, a Northwestern river, and, eventually, a dose of Deliverance ethics.
If the narrative is undernourished and predictable, Estes has adroitly siphoned most of his energies into Mean Creek‘s rhythms. You can see the conscientious effort seep through the intimate small talk between brothers, down to the head-slapping antipathy broiling between Marty and his older brother (Branden Williams). The generational layers of abuse are, unfortunately, only sketched in; Estes is most convincing with the decaying Oregon suburbs, the insulated universes of kids’ bedrooms, and Peck. George is a stunningly uncomfortable creation, a giant, mewling infant who’s learned to compensate for his learning disabilities with clumsy gangsta shit-talk and confrontational camcorder-ing. In the course of the movie, the other characters vacillate between pity and loathing for this ogre, but we’re squirming in our seats, waiting for the sky to fall.
As obvious in many ways as its title (and its poster), Mean Creek retains a gritty working-class ambience, but it feels over-rehearsed. While Culkin, as the ostensible hero, has precious little to work with, Mechlowicz’s punk picks up where Judd Nelson’s Breakfast Club antihero left off as the oddly hyperarticulate white-trash criminal kid. When things get emotional, Estes’s already threadbare scenario dissolves into mopey staring and mannerism—Carly Schroeder, as Sam’s budding girlfriend, is given a particularly impossible moment of despair involving a giant forest snail.
But insofar as Mean Creek was intended as a studio-audition tape for Estes, it succeeds admirably—the guy can cast, handle actors, make the most of a budget, and write middle-class stories that upset no one’s expectations. Would that we could share in his hard-earned fortune, rather than merely see the film.