THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"MEAN CREEK"

Mean Creek might never have been made had it not been for a bully on the basketball court. Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes liked to shoot hoops on a local San Francisco court, but didnít like the guy who often showed up drunk and proceeded to taunt him by playing too aggressively and making verbally abusive comments. Estes concocted revenge fantasies in his mind but never carried them out. However, the incident became the catalyst for a screenplay idea he was developing Ė one that would look at morality issues through the eyes of children and teenagers. Once completed, Mean Creek went on to play at the Sundance Film Festival and enjoy a theatrical release. It is now available on video and DVD.

The movie opens with a shocking burst of violence. A heavy-set kid named George (Josh Peck) videotapes himself playing basketball. Another kid, Sam (Rory Culkin), wanders over and curiously picks up the camera. An enraged George attacks Sam, pounding him mercilessly with his fists and shouting epithets in his face. The act is unexpected, partially because itís so sudden and partially because George looks like the kind of kid who would be a victim rather than an aggressor.

Sam talks about the incident to his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan), who in turn mentions it to his buddies Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechlowicz). They too have had run-ins with George. As payback, the group concocts a revenge scheme intended to embarrass the bully. Under the false pretenses of a birthday celebration, they will lure him onto a row boat. Once on the river, they intend to make him strip and jump in the river. Then theyíll take off, forcing him to run home naked. The only person who doesnít know about the plan is Samís girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder). No one clues her in until the group arrives at the boat, and when she finds out, she is not happy.

Then something unexpected happens. George turns out to be something less than a generic bully. Yes, heís cruel and violent at times. Heís also lonely and approval-seeking. Itís clear that Georgeís behavior is not inherent meanness but more likely a mental health diagnosis Ė something like Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Intermittent Explosive Disorder. When heís not fired up, heís actually a pretty normal kid who wants to fit in. Itís only when he gets angry that he loses control. We get the distinct impression that his outbursts are impulsive and spontaneous rather than planned out. We Ė and the other characters Ė find an unexpected sympathy for him.

Millie encourages Sam to drop the plan, as George doesnít seem so bad after all. Sam agrees and convinces Rocky of the same. The only person who canít be persuaded to change his mind is Marty. As a victim of his older brotherís physical and verbal abuse, Marty is not inclined to let anyone else off the hook. While on the river, a confrontation occurs, sending the heretofore pleasant George into one of his tirades. Things get ugly and tragedy strikes. I wonít reveal the specifics of what happens to whom, but you can probably guess the general idea.

Mean Creek has thematic similarities to the 80ís classic Riverís Edge as well as Larry Clarkís Bully (which was based on a horrific true story). The difference is that in Mean Creek, the tragedy is accidental, not purposeful, and that gives the story an even deeper sense of sadness. This group of kids Ė most of whom have emotional baggage anyway Ė are suddenly thrust into a situation that none of them are prepared to cope with. Without the support of parents (who donít seem to be very active in their childrenísí lives), the group must figure out what is right. The realization that they canít un-do the accident is a scar that will never heal.

The performances in the movie are amazing in their authenticity. The young actors create vivid characters whose interactions are believable and, more importantly, gripping. Estes has written a compelling moral drama that the cast brings to life perfectly. Itís probably fair to say that Mean Creekís success always depended on how disturbing it could be; it is deeply, deeply disturbing. Iíve actually known my fair share of troubled kids, and this film is as accurate a depiction of them as Iíve ever seen.

It is possible that the story could have gone on a little bit longer than it does. Although the movie concludes when the arc of the characters is complete, I couldnít help but wonder what happened next. Estes certainly doesnít need to spell everything out for us (that would ruin the mystique) but a small indication of how these kids carry on in the coming days would have been interesting.

That aside, Mean Creek is a powerful work. Although it carries an R rating, this is the kind of film that adolescents would benefit from seeing with their parents. Jacob Aaron Estes has made an attention-getting debut, and I look forward to seeing where his career takes him.

The DVD contains only minimal extras, including an informative group commentary. Deleted scenes are referred to, but unfortunately not included. Picture and sound quality are excellent, and the alternating use of film and video gives Mean Creek an appropriately eerie tone.

( 1/2 out of four)


Mean Creek is rated R for language, sexual references, teen drug and alcohol use. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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