Going downriver: 'Creek' a success

by Matt Hill | 10/21/04 5:00am

One could approach "Mean Creek" as I did, with a certain set of expectations. Certainly, the advertisements and trailers for the film invoke the feeling that the independent film, being the directorial debut of Jacob Aaron Estes, will ultimately culminate in a convenient and predictably tragic climax that catalyzes the central character's coming of age. The film's rather mundane title, even, does little to abate such abject reservations.

And there are indeed some aspects of this outlook that prove relevant. On first glance, for instance, the central characters seem to be carved cleanly from the mold of high-school-movie kitsch. The first scene introduces eighth-grader Sam (Rory Culkin, demonstrating a precociousness that seems to be genetic) being bullied by the larger and loudmouthed George (Josh Peck). To the chagrin of the portly tyrant, of course, Sam has an older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), who has every intention of displaying his brotherly love by reciprocating Sam's humiliation. Rocky is joined by two friends: Marty (Scott Mechlowicz of "Eurotrip" fame) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley). The older boys concoct a plan to take George on a boat trip down a small (mean!) creek, where they intend essentially to humiliate and ditch him. Joining the scheming boys and the ignorant villain is Sam's potential girlfriend, Millie (Carly Schroeder).

Yet while "Mean Creek," a surprise success at the Cannes and Sundance Film festivals, does utilize its common backdrop to tell a relatively common story, its execution is spot-on, insightful and wrought with psychological richness and depth that lend it enormous resonance as a film. This is achieved through various means. Estes' characters, seemingly stereotypical at the outset, grow through their actions and develop through strikingly realistic dialogue. Morgan, Mechlowicz and Kelley may not be 18 in real life, but they are a far cry, thankfully, from the 90210-esque twenty-somethings who play characters a fraction of their ages in most teen movies. Their exchanges are amusing, harsh, edgy and, most importantly, authentic.

The dynamics between the characters, too, are undeniably natural and relatable. Rocky strives to be the ideal older brother to Sam: strong-willed and yielding, forceful yet composed. Marty's tough-guy veneer belies his vulnerability resulting from a tragic family situation. And the cautiously whimsical energy that flutters between Sam and Millie exults in its own wit and charm.

The film's cinematography and direction is quite stunning. Estes often relies on handheld video cameras, whose shakiness and stark colors work to highlight the searing emotional intensity of youths in rage and pity. Camera flourishes further add to the film's drama: As tensions rise on the little boat, the viewer witnesses green water darken to an impenetrable black; downstream, the banks, covered by rock faces, seem to close in on the river, compressing the taut energy of the film's second act. At its heights, "Mean Creek" seems ready to explode at any moment.

And when it does, it hits hard.

The climax combines this imagery with an almost tangible sense of conflict that grows authentically between lucidly realized characters, ultimately reaching a horrifying power that in some ways recalls "Lord of the Flies." Like William Golding's great novel, "Mean Creek" utilizes its major tragedy as a centerpiece for what it has to say. Of course, this isn't about stranded schoolboys-turned-savages, or insect-ridden pigs' heads perched on spears, but more simply about growing up as a male. Sam seeks guidance from an older brother who struggles to provide it; Marty's stand-in father figure, an overly abusive older brother, stirs in him a similar aggressiveness toward others; Clyde constantly must maintain composure as he's condemned for having two fathers for parents. And as the most interesting character in the film, George proves himself to be a manipulative and multifaceted villain, equally adroit at eliciting hate and sympathy in those who seek to humiliate him.

Finally, Millie is the character with whom we can most closely identify. As the river grows darker, the voices grow louder, the intensity more tangible, we witness her stare, with haunting blue eyes, at the horror of what she is facing. The fury that stands at the center of the film's emotional spectrum is wild and uncontained; it seems as inevitable as it seems unnecessary.

Later in the film, wrapped in a thin white blanket, Millie says to Sam, "This is your thing. I was just there." Yet the fear in her eyes makes it obvious she knows otherwise. After 87 minutes of thoughtful and powerful filmmaking, we are similarly unable to escape what we have seen. It is too close to our own reality for us to dismiss.