In the tradition of great coming-of-age films like Stand By Me, Jacob Aaron Estes’ debut feature, Mean Creek, offers a view of life from distinct, fresh young pairs of eyes.
Mean Creek is set in a nonspecific era (though the pagers and Super Soakers seem like the 90’s) in a small, rural American town. Sam (Rory Culkin) finds himself on the brink of graduating from junior high and is terrorized by the school bully, George (Josh Peck).
Sam hatches a plan for harmless revenge with help from his older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), who runs with a group led by the charismatic and volatile Marty (Scott Mechlowicz). Inevitably, what is intended as tame retaliation soon gets out of hand when Sam, Rocky, and their friends convince George to attend Sam’s birthday party and lure him into the forest.
The drama of Mean Creek is cranked up in the latter part of film, but the earlier scenes prove to be equally gripping. Watching the kids’ afternoon unfold, there is a sense of dread, even if the viewer doesn’t know precisely what is about to happen. Estes builds the tension beautifully and uses sparse cinematography and a taught script to add an additional layer of raw realism.
When the film does reach its climax, part of what gives it such a punch is the film’s characters. Each of the teenagers feels fully formed and wholly distinct by that point. We learn that Marty is a victim of bullying at the hands of his own brother, while his friend, Clyde (Ryan Kelley), has been teased into submission for being the son of two gay fathers. Even George, the film’s most obvious antagonist is spared from caricature, and is painted as a complex, troubled kid.
Since Mean Creek features such believable characters, it is incredibly fortunate that Estes found such talented young actors to pull off the roles. The six principle actors are uniformly great. Melchlowicz has the showiest role, and he seems to embrace Marty’s bombastic traits in hand with the mountain of insecurities that they’re in place to cover.
Kelley is also fantastic in what may be the most understated role in the film. He brings a bundle of nervous, quiet energy to a kid who, in some ways, is wise beyond his years. His steady presence injects so much extra soul into this quietly harrowing film.
Comparisons to Stand By Me are inevitable, as the two films do share a sense of simultaneous spiritedness and melancholy. Their young protagonists fret about starting high school and get into youthful mischief, yet Mean Creek has a decidedly more morose edge. What starts off innocent becomes desperate, and it’s disarming to see these young people thrown into a situation that most adults would fail to deal with properly.
But Mean Creek manages to finish on just the right note. It would be impossible for it to end in an entirely uplifting way, and rather than delving into the murky waters of the long-term aftermath of the characters’ actions, Estes largely leaves it up to the viewer’s imagination. And that makes it both more satisfying and unsettling than any tacked-on epilogue could have been.