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MEAN CREEK

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck, Carly Schroeder
Director: Jacob Aaron Estes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 89 Minutes
Release Date: January 25, 2005

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m gonna drive to Mexico. What do you think?”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“Well, if you don’t know what to think, then you probably shouldn’t be making decisions.”

Film ***1/2

There hasn’t been a more haunting film experience in recent memory than Mean Creek. In fact, having just recently watched the film a day prior to writing this piece, I am still haunted by the film as I speak to you. It has a noteworthy level of power, as well as the most talented cast of young actors to appear in an adult oriented film since perhaps Stand by Me.

Premiering at last year’s Sundance festival, the film quickly earned praise, as well as comparison to the likes of River’s Edge. It deserves the comparison, because Mean Creek is certainly this generation’s River’s Edge. First time writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes has woven together a brutal and absorbing piece that I sincerely think will get a big reaction out of those who see it, much like the one I had to it.

The film opens with young Sam (Rory Culkin) becoming the victim of an assault by the school bully, George (Josh Peck). Sam comes home with a bruised face, which influences his older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), to devise a somewhat elaborate scheme in order to get back at George, who’s known only through his numerous attacks on easy targets at school.

The act of payback is designed to simply teach George a lesson, nothing more and nothing less. Sam agrees to the plan only if it entails that George will get hurt without being “hurt”. Rocky gets two other culprits in on the gig in the form of friends Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley). Sam also gets his potential girlfriend, Millie (Carly Schroeder) involved, even though she’s not entirely clued in as to what’s going on.

The plan is to make amends with George and invite him for a get together on Sam’s “birthday”, which will include a boat ride down a nearby river in the woods.  What starts out as an easy attempt at payback goes south when the group find that George, who does so much as to get Sam a birthday gift, isn’t that bad of a guy after all. Upon discovering this, Sam secretly tells the group to call off the plan, but an innocent game of truth or dare will result in a tragic consequence.

Once this tragic event happens (and although I won’t reveal what exactly happens, one can pretty much assume what the inevitable is), that’s when Mean Creek extracts its harrowing impact that will remain with you for the remainder of the movie, and will likely stick with you long after the viewing is over. For me, the crucial turning point in the film had me sinking deep in my seat, still not believing what had just happened, and even more wondering about how these kids were going to find their way out of what they’ve gotten themselves into.

The strength of the film can be credited to its writer/director, Jacob Aaron Estes, who has made a more than striking film debut. His indie-approach to this story helps to enhance the overall effect of the film. The setting of the river stream, where a good portion of the action is set, feels as authentic as any set piece you could ask for. The effective cinematography of Sharon Meir adds a great deal to the authenticity.

And the cast of young actors, most of them unknowns, is simply stunning. To see this young group deal with their predicament, as well as they handle the consequences of their actions, is mind blowing. It’s a surefire answer to the pre-conceived notion that all kids in the movies have to act and sound like characters in conventional, teen-oriented movies. Among the cast, the performance that struck me most was Scott Mechlowicz as Marty, the elder of the group whose gesture leads to the turning point in the story.

Although it may serve as a film that was inspired by similarly-themed films from the past, Mean Creek is a true discovery. It showcases the most riveting portrait of young teens in a coming of age scenario, and applies brutal honesty at the same time. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t get made often, and it’s one of the most absorbing films I’ve seen in quite a while.

Video ***1/2

The anamorphic picture on this Paramount release is quite superb and efficient. The film carries with it a unique visual style, thanks in part to the edgy cinematography, as mentioned. Though the disc does showcase a slight setback in the image in the form of brief softness, this independent film is visually effective enough in this format.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix delivers a more than intriguing listen. Like all indies, this one is powered by dialogue. However, in addition to the dialogue delivery, which is every bit clear, the woods and river setting provide numerous grand instances of subtle background sound, which gives this an extra boost of credit.

Features **

Featured on the disc is a cast and director commentary, a storyboard gallery, and bonus previews for additional Paramount releases.

Summary:

Mean Creek is more than a film, but it is quite a haunting experience. Any film with actors under the age of 18 that can be so disturbingly effective deserves strong credit. This one gets it, and thoroughly deserves it!

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