In his feature debut Mean Creek, writer-director Jacob Estes explores what happens when directionless energy finds dangerous focus. Emboldened by each other's emotional and physical presence, a group of Oregon teens turns on a peer. Though the story is one familiar to anyone who has seen Tim Hunter's River's Edge or Larry Clark's Bully, Estes's film casts prismatic light on the persistent issues of bullying, youth violence, and their mortal and emotional consequences.
With care and not a little complexity, Estes observes the casual emasculations, homophobia, and roughhousing common among teenage males. Calling each other "ladies" or "faggots"—with or without malice—young men assail each other's masculinity. Whether the "ball-busting" occurs from older brother to younger brother, friend to friend, or schoolyard predator to prey, bullying simultaneously empowers the bully and borders on masochism. The bully in Mean Creek—an obnoxious but achingly pitiable boy named George (Josh Peck)—acts out self-destructively because it is the only way he knows to get the attention of the cooler kids around him. His attacks are also preemptive strikes, defending against ridicule of his plus-sized weight.
George has taken to bullying a slight boy named Sam (Rory Culkin of Signs); by contrast, George's amateur videography betrays a lyrical quality he cannot reveal in public. Sam's older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) insists, "Something's gotta happen, Sam. Something's gotta give." Rocky recruits his friends Marty (Scott Mechlowicz of Eurotrip) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley) to tag along on a fabricated birthday excursion down the creek, supposedly in Sam's honor but staged for George's benefit. Once invited into a social group, George softens considerably, which weakens the vengeful resolve of those plotting embarrassment for him. Further complicating matters, Sam has invited his crush Millie (Carly Schroeder) to tag along, though she's ignorant of the plot against George. Her peer pressure tends toward the better angels of their natures, but aggression roils in each of them.
Naturally the best-laid plans go awry, beginning with a damaging game of "Truth or Dare." Estes has an ear for subtle ironies, like the passing comments which reveal, in hindsight, that the eventual victim of violence has a particularly safety-conscious mother. Estes also enables excellent and seemingly effortless performances from the six members of his young ensemble; more than anything, their work distinguishes Mean Creek. The Super-16 photography by Sharon Meir and score by tomandandy (Rules of Attraction) contribute to the film's understated magnetism. As a lump-in-the-throat modern morality play, Mean Creek should be required viewing for pre-teens, despite its MPAA-dictated "R" rating.