Sunday, May 01, 2005

Review - Mean Creek

Mean Creek, the debut film from writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes, has much to recommend it. Beautifully shot and acted, the film is a serious, brave and compelling teenage morality play about a prank which goes horribly wrong. Unfortunately the film falls apart in the second half when Estes proves unable to handle the ramifications of his plot developments and can’t maintain the absorbing drama of the early stages.

The film revolves around a school bully named George (Josh Peck) who regularly administers beatings to those younger and weaker than him, often without any provocation. One of his victims is Sam (Rory Culkin), a quiet, introspective kid who doesn’t believe in fighting back (“if we hurt him, we’d be just as bad as him”). Nevertheless, Sam’s older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) does think that George needs to learn a lesson and, along with a couple of his friends, hatches a plan to humiliate him. They invite George to Sam’s (non-existent) birthday celebrations which will comprise of a boat trip up the river. He happily accepts and joins them on their journey, but along the way the kids start to see George in a new light and start to have second thoughts about their cruel prank. However, the group’s dangerous leader Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) is unwilling to be swayed from their revenge.

If the film has flaws then none of them can be attributed to the cast, all of whom give accomplished performances. Rory Culkin, the nominal lead, actually gives the least interesting display and finds the spotlight stolen by some of the less well-known actors around him. The real star here is undoubtedly Josh Peck who delivers a tremendous turn as George. As the film progresses, we start to see that George is more than just a malicious bully. He’s a sensitive, mixed up, lonely, fat kid with a learning disability and his cheery demeanour at the start of the trip, when he thinks he’s been invited along for friendship, is heartbreaking. But George is just as likely to turn on his companions, and is quick to leap on any sore spot or sign of weakness and exploit it. So should we feel sorry for this character?

Peck’s ability to create such a fully-rounded character and convey so many emotions with ease is startling and it makes the first half of Mean Creek an unsettling experience, not least in the extraordinarily tense game of truth or dare which spins out of control. And Estes’ touch is just as sure when it comes to the rest of his young performers. 14 year-old Carly Schroeder is astonishingly good as Millie, who becomes unwittingly involved in the revenge plot when she thinks she is set for a date with new boyfriend Sam. As the only girl on the trip, her presence also tempers some of the macho (homoerotic?) behaviour on board. Also deserving of praise is Scott Mechlowicz as the group’s surly, charismatic leader, whose beatings at the hands of his own older brother may explain his desire to see George get his just desserts.

This is a potent set-up, and Estes shows his skill in building the tension between the kids and successfully manipulating the audience’s emotions. But after the film has revealed its hand (it’s not really a twist as we can long see where the film is heading), it can’t replace the lost sense of menace it had so effectively developed. The air just goes out of the picture and we are left with a meandering final third with Estes failing to achieve the sense of profundity or psychological depth he is clearly striving for. What should have been a powerful climax fizzles out into a damp squib.

Clearly Estes has bags of talent. He can handle actors, build tension and his film looks sumptuous (the river journey recalls the films of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green), but his inexperience tells when trying to sort out the narrative mess Mean Creek becomes embroiled in. Thanks to the precocious cast, Mean Creek is definitely a trip worth taking, it’s just a shame that Estes finds himself without a paddle for so much of it.