Near the beginning of Mean Creek, 13-year-old Sam (Rory Culkin) joins his girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder) for their idea of a date. Millie breaks the awkward silence with three dutiful get-to-know-you questions.
“What does your dad do?”
Sam answers that his father sells car stereos.
There’s a pause. Then Millie asks, “Do you believe in God?”
Sam looks at her like she’s an alien. “That’s a strange question.”
Millie thinks some more, and settles on another question: “What’s it like being male?”
They both laugh.
It’s a fleeting exchange, one that will probably be forgotten in the nightmarish intensity of all that’s about to happen. But in retrospect, it’s revelatory. Millie’s questions parallel three larger questions that linger in the film like storm clouds ready to break: If these kids really have parents, where are they, and why aren’t they serving as healthy role models? Is there anyone higher to watch over these lost teens, to offer them guidance and healing, to forgive the damage they do to each other? And finally—what is it that makes a boy a man?
Mean Creek is set in a small Oregon town where kids don’t have much to do but get into trouble. Sam’s a timid, intelligent boy who gets the snot beat out of him by the playground bully George (Josh Peck). When Sam’s older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) finds out, he tells his two buddies, Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechlowicz). They decide to teach the bully a lesson.
Sam’s not so sure: “If we hurt him, we’d be just as bad as him.”
“We need to hurt him without really hurting him,” Rocky explains.
Clyde has access to a boat. Marty can borrow (or steal) his mom’s car. Pretending it’s Sam’s birthday party, they can set a trap for his worst enemy and pretend they’re all going out for a celebratory river cruise. What transpires as they voyage through the exquisitely beautiful surroundings of the Lewis River echoes events from Stand by Me, The Outsiders and River’s Edge. Moreover, it skirts the edges of deeper, darker waters—Deliverance, Apocalypse Now and Lord of the Flies.
The similarities are not accidental. “I referred to Deliverance a lot in making the script,” explains director Jacob Aaron Estes, sporting an Alien vs. Predator T-shirt in the lobby of the swanky Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle. “I knew that there’d be this stark irony of ugly events happening in this beautiful environment. The real issue was finding a place from which these kids couldn’t escape. Their group dynamic would have to evolve as a result of the confinement. A river is a force of nature, going in one direction, and once you’re on it, you’re on it. That’s what it does to the characters—they become a force of nature.”
While you might expect the bad-to-worse progression and the end result of the avengers’ prank, you can’t anticipate just how fiercely this first-time director will seize your attention. His honest, unmerciful portrayal of adolescents’ capacity for meanness, foolishness and desperation is riveting. Estes works with the restraint and realism of David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls) and a proclivity for the poetic imagery of Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven).
He intelligently distances us from the customary aesthetic comforts of commercial films. In moments when most filmmakers would whip the soundtrack into hysterical crescendos, he abstains entirely. He forgoes crowd-pleasing special effects, avoids cheap punchlines and minimizes stylistic flourishes.
Instead, with the immediacy of a hand-held video camera, he plants us firmly in the boat, far from shore. The jagged edges of his characterizations are heartbreakingly convincing. No wonder the first draft of this screenplay earned him an invitation to the revered Eugene O’Neil Theater Center’s National Playwright Conference.
The foul-mouthed Marty is a frightening and volatile presence. But behind the shield of his ego and muscle, he’s an open wound, the product of an abusive older brother, a valium-addicted mother and a suicidal father. Mechlowicz’s portrayal makes it easy to believe Marty will take any situation past its proper boundaries without regard for the wages of sin. He walks and talks like Brad Pitt in his early bad-boy roles but is a darker, more unpredictable presence.
Culkin’s performance is complex and haunting; one of the year’s best. But the hardest job falls to Peck who must make George into a complex oaf who’s self-absorbed and despicably mean but also sensitive and vulnerable. In a moment that transforms the film, he climbs into Marty’s car, oblivious to the conspiracy against him, and presents Sam with a birthday present. Now that he’s off the playground and confident he’s among friends, he’s suddenly agreeable, even gentle and good-humored.
Contrasted with Jackass or Survivor, where cruel pranks become entertainment without consequence and individuals become pawns, Mean Creek presents these things through a discomfortingly truthful lens. We’re forced to stare both the perpetrators and the victims full in the face, to see what made them the fools they are and what will come of the foolishness they commit. It doesn’t help that we come to care about them as much as we do.
You can’t help but wonder if Estes wrote on the nature and consequences of violence to serve, in part, as a commentary on the war on terrorism and in Iraq. “Naturally it makes sense to look at current events and draw conclusions,” he responds. “I don’t mind that at all. I think that’s cool. That’s the whole nature of stories—you project your needs and ideas on them. But I first wrote this script seven years ago.
“The themes that resonate with current events have to do with our enemies; with recognizing their humanity before we go to destroy them. Sometimes violence is necessary. But look at where these kids end up—violence begets violence. It couldn’t be more simple than that. That’s what’s manifested in this story. The kids don’t mean to physically hurt George. They’re motivated by this playful notion to humiliate someone who seems to deserve it. But he only seems to deserve it because they’ve objectified him. They haven’t dug deep enough to understand who George is.
“In the end, they need to be honest about what they’ve done wrong. I think that’s what’s been missing from our dialog. We just refuse to acknowledge our violence and our mistreatment of each other. That’s what needs to happen at the end of the day, in families and outside of families.”
As glimmers of conscience begin to take hold of Sam, Rocky, Millie and Clyde, the film could easily degenerate into a battle of wills in a simplistic morality tale. But Estes avoids easy answers and tidy resolutions. He keeps his focus on the way the characters are formed, both by the families that fail them and by the deeds they can’t undo.
“There was a lot of temptation I had to fight as a writer as far as how to structure the third act,” Estes says. “In the first draft, bodies started piling up, and I had to pull back and say, ‘What is this story about?’ It’s not a thriller that turns into nihilistic chaos, or where we see how people ravage and destroy each other until they’re all dead, because that left me with nothing. A lot of people continue to say, ‘What happens to these kids?’ I never wanted to talk about what happens to these kids. That’s beside the point. What’s been the point has been where they’re going emotionally as a result of their decisions.”
Mean Creek is the kind of film you wish you could show to troubled young people to illustrate where such recklessness can lead. But the film is R-rated for its honesty, disqualifying it for viewing by the audience that needs it most.
“Here’s my take on it,” Estes says about the rating. “Not all the characters in our movie curse, but some of them do, and they’re destroying each other with that negativity. They use bad language and hurt each other badly as a result. They’re learning what to do with that hurt, and figuring out their relationship to their own language. You can’t go around speaking like this, or else look at where it gets you.
“What more could parents ask for than to sit around a dinner table and to talk about things like this? They can talk about the horrible things that these people said to each other and the things that ensued as a result. It’s better to deal with what’s real than to not deal with what’s real, and to be in denial about it.
“Some of the actors had to consider that same question. Carly Schroeder’s 11, and she’s been taught not to say some of the things that are said in the movie. But eventually she and her mom talked about it, and they decided that the movie was dealing with those issues of violence, not exploiting them. The Mummy exploits violence. This movie deals with violence.”
During George’s incessant chatter, he wonders if his learning disability might not actually be a sign that he’s evolving, surpassing the intelligence of those around him. The suggestion quietly lurks in the film’s conclusion, echoed in the fear and loneliness of Sam’s wounded expression. Are we evolving? If so, into what? Are we developing into something better or something worse? When your choices have smashed your heart, and you can’t pick up the pieces, to whom do you go for help?