He attacks for no reason, terrorizing the weak and the more-or-less helpless. George (Josh Peck) may think he’s doing nothing wrong, but there’s no mistaking the bruises and black eyes he leaves the smaller kids on the playground. He’s just a confused, possibly ill thirteen year-old, but his victims don’t have the time or inclination to consider that — they’re too busy trying to keep themselves unharmed.
But everyone knows that kids turn the other cheek only when they have to; give them the power, and some form of justice will be done. “Something’s gotta give,” says Sam’s big brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan), after the former (Rory Culkin) receives another beating, and a plan is born: they, along with an older kid named Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), Sam’s friend Millie (Carly Schroeder), and Rocky’s buddy Clyde (Ryan Kelley), incidentally the son of two gay fathers, will invite George on a boat trip under the guise of Sam’s birthday celebration. Then, when they’re in the middle of the river, they will do… something. We don’t know what, exactly, but we’re pretty sure nothing nice.
Not all of the members of the crack team are aware of Sam, Rocky and Marty’s master plan, and this is where Jacob Aaron Estes’ Mean Creek gets interesting. There are several levels of involvement: Marty, the oldest, biggest and strongest of the group, seems to be along for the sheer joy of the affair — a nasty prank on a mean fat kid. Rocky is perhaps less gleeful, but his genuine concern for his little brother keeps him very much hyped up and in the game. Sam is hesitant, opining that “if we hurt him, we’ll be just as bad as him,” but is angry enough, in his own quiet way, to go along. Millie is unaware of the plan entirely, and is horrified when she finds out, a reaction akin to “I didn’t sign up for this!”
As they bicker and argue and improvise, we learn several things. One: this endeavor cannot possibly remain under any sort of rational control; there are too many egos and motives and wild cards at play for any prank, should it happen, to remain just a prank. Two: that from the beginning, all of the participants thought they were doing the right thing — even Marty, for all his brazen malevolence, sees the whole thing as cosmic justice; not just for Sam, but for himself as well. He has bully problems too.
Three: there is little innocence to be found even among the presumably righteous. Rocky and Marty may have taken Clyde, the tag-along outcast, under their collective wing, but they are not above some shockingly cruel taunts about his gay parents or his refusal to smoke pot. When they get out on the water, Marty immediately offers everyone on board a joint, and only a stern reminder that “there are younger kids on this trip” gets him to put away the bag.
Mean Creek develops like a thriller, with a remarkable level of sustained tension courtesy of the dawning realization that something is about to go terribly wrong. But Estes isn’t beholden to genre conventions, and he sketches a beautiful, nuanced set of characters — Rocky, with his moving, unquestioning loyalty to his brother belying a profound inexperience, and Sam, whose intelligence and independence refuse to let him become a pawn at the hands of the older kids. George is perhaps too much the misunderstood bully — that final voiceover is a tad shameless — but the vicious, unhinged turn by Josh Peck in the role tempers the script’s strident attempts to make him into a sympathetic, unassuming victim.
The film’s biggest coup, however, may be Rory Culkin, who delivers a performance of such incredible force that after a while I simply settled into a constant slack-jawed stare of astonishment. His character contains multitudes — Sam is both assertive and reserved, fundamentally young and mature beyond his years — and the fourteen year-old Culkin manipulates these traits like a master, crafting a heartbreaking portrait of a bright, promising kid whose future is on the verge of being derailed. He is the rare young actor with a talent for understatement; watch his body language when things start to go awry in the third act.
Estes’ debut feature isn’t perfect — there had to have been a better way of dealing with the aftermath of the inevitable tragedy than resorting to that old chestnut of the One Guy Who Wants to Cover It Up — but it shows an undeniable flair for creating a moving character study while instilling in the audience a sense of absolute dread. There is also the matter of the actors; I mentioned Peck and Culkin, but all five members of the ensemble give performances that I would call “Oscar-worthy” if they didn’t entirely transcend that meager, meaningless term.