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Mean Creek

Review Written by: Arlo J. Wiley
Film: B+
Video/Audio/Extras: B+/B/C-

Directed by: Jacob Aaron Estes
Written by: Jacob Aaron Estes
Produced by: Susan Johnson, Rick Rosenthal and Hagai Shaham
Starring: Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck, Carly Schroeder
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Rent it

It's rare when a film comes along that captures the feeling of adolescence so acutely: The pain, the sorrow and the awkward and uncomfortable situations. Usually, we're given bright-eyed, braces-wearing caricatures of the sort that pop up in Hollywood pictures like Cheaper by the Dozen 2 or The Princess Diaries. Luckily, Mean Creek, the disturbing feature-length debut of director Jacob Aaron Estes, applies to the former set. It manages to dig deep down into the teenage psyche, far deeper than most parents of teenagers will want to go.

Sam (Rory Culkin) is a nice kid in the seventh grade, which of course means he's the prime target for many a bully, including the obnoxious and self-serving George (Josh Peck). One day after George thoroughly beats up Sam for messing with his camcorder, Sam's brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) devises a plan to get back at George. According to Rocky's plan, he and Sam, along with the girl Sam has a crush on, Millie (Carly Schroeder) and two of Rocky's friends, the rebellious jackass Marty "Martini" Blank (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley), who gets picked on all the time for having two homosexual fathers, will invite George to a fake birthday canoe outing for Sam before stripping George, throwing him in the water and forcing him to run home naked. Unfortunately, conflict arises within the group about whether or not they should go through with it, and things eventually go horribly awry.

Mean Creek is a quiet film, expressing the characters' emotions in subtle, effective ways. The opening credits sequence, a single underwater shot of the flowing creek, is beautiful and really sets the mood for the rest of the movie. The tension that Jacob Aaron Estes manages to build with his silent, contemplative shots of nature and the characters' increasingly uninviting surroundings works better even than his scenes of verbal battery...though their power is not to be discounted, either. Estes, who worked on the script in various forms for seven years before getting it made, here perfectly captures the anguish of adolescence. Mean Creek follows exactly how teenagers feel toward the world around them and how their vengeful tendencies can lead to terrible things, even if they weren't intended to. What's most disturbing about the film is that it could happen to anyone around you and does. Humans are faulty beings and sometimes regrettable decisions are made. Some, like those made in Mean Creek, will haunt you for the rest of your life. The young cast does extremely well with the material, giving stronger performances than most adult actors do today. Rory Culkin, who I've come to acknowledge as the most talented member of the Culkin family, is fantastic as is Carly Schroeder (her characters' gradual loss of innocence is devastating and wholly believable). Josh Peck's performance is also startling, because of how completely different his demeanor is from that on the horrid Nickelodeon series Drake & Josh, for which he's best known. Judging by his screeching, overly-emphatic performance on the show, I'm astounded he can act as well as he can. Unfortunately, for a powerful movie such as this, the video and audio portions of the DVD are not without their faults. The video has many more scratches than a movie this recent should and the audio track is oftentimes muddled, probably because of how low-tech the recording was. Still, though, there are problems when I have to rewind the movie and put on subtitles to understand bits of dialogue. Fortunately, though, this doesn't happen often.

The extras are also disappointing. Out of the two extras on this disc, only one is worth your attention: An audio commentary track by director Jacob Aaron Estes, cast members Ryan Kelley, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck and Carly Schroeder and producer Susan Johnson. The commentary is insightful, though not exhaustive, but the people involved engage in some very amusing conversations and all seem like very likable, talkative people. It's a shame, though, that Ryan Kelley barely says a word the entire time and Rory Culkin isn't involved. That would've made the proceedings even more interesting. Estes and Johnson also spend a good deal of the track discussing many filmed bits that were cut from the finished product...why aren't they on the disc? For a movie as affecting as Mean Creek, one would've hoped that there was more to learn about the film to further enrich their viewing experience. Besides the entertaining commentary, the other extra is a series of storyboard illustrations that add nothing whatsoever to the disc and are basically useless.

Ultimately, Mean Creek is a very good movie with a decent DVD transfer, but the lack of extras doesn't make it a necessary purchase. Try it before you buy it.

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