Jacob Estes’ Mean Creek, a troubling and understated look at teen angst, manages to avoid clichés by…avoiding placing its protagonists in clichéd situations. Instead, it follows a fluid narrative that never feels contrived, and leaves the audience with genuine sympathy for every single child involved. What’s most interesting here is that the circumstances—the death of lonesome bully George (Josh Peck)—wouldn’t have led to criminal charges had the crew simply kept their calm. There was no murder; simply an unfortunate drowning due to a fat boy being unable to swim. However, the verbal exchanges that preceded the tragedy were so heated and personal that to the group, it must have felt like the death was their fault. Consequently, their subsequent actions, and the furor that spurred it on, must be looked at in a different light from the normal genre pictures.
Mean Creek follows a group of five kids, ranging from very low to late teens, as they go on a boat trip of trickery on the local lake. George has constantly pummeled Sam (Rory Culkin), to the point that his brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan), and neighborhood chums Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), Clyde (Ryan Kelley), and Millie (Carly Schroeder) fool George into coming along to the water, under the guise of Sam’s birthday. During the outing, it becomes evident that George is a very troubled boy. He’s shown in his room, making self-documentaries with a handheld camera, claiming the footage will be legendary after he’s gone. His room is full of technological gadgetry, he’s overweight, and he picks on everyone with the slightest weakness; clearly, he feels the need to dramatically overcompensate for his extreme loneliness. While on the rickety craft, George bludgeons at his various companion’s weak points—Sam & Millie’s evident crushes on one another, Clyde’s two fathers and likely homosexuality, etc—but backs off whenever the rest of the bunch turn on him simultaneously. It becomes evident that his tough-guy act is just a desperate cry for attention and companionship. Late on the trip, when things turn really ugly, he starts spewing vile insults and slicing at exposed nerves, but as disgusting and unforgivable as they may be, it’s evident that it’s just the outlet of a heartbroken child who thought he’d finally found some chums. Before we begin to sympathize with the youngsters who had to witness an acquaintance pass away, our hearts observe a moment of silence for the miserable death of a miserable boy.
Infighting amongst the group leads to a split: those who want to confess (even though they’re all technically innocent), and Marty, who wants to cover it up. The others initially defer to Marty, but after meeting without him, change their minds…and Marty can’t take it. Indeed, two of Mean Creek’s most powerful moments involve little-to-no dialogue: after George’s death and the groups’—sans Marty—decision to confront it honestly, there’s a silent sequence where the five remaining kids knock on George’s mother’s door, and their solemn faces and his mother’s wide-eyed horror will rip the most stoic viewer’s heart to shreds. Minutes later, we see a torn-apart Marty—unwilling to face his fate, despite being the elder of the posse—holding up a grocery store while fighting back tears. Having already dealt with his father’s bloody suicide, another death on his conscience—both not his fault directly, both heavy burdens to bear nonetheless—he’s unable to stay and confront that kind of pain again. Mean Creek is full of this kind of somber, naturalistic pain, and while it has some sloppy loose ends (Clyde’s gay father storyline isn’t particularly developed, and makes him border on caricature, for instance), it’s above and beyond much of its competitors. The camerawork is spotty (though with many lovely examples of framing), and the score is appropriately eerie and quiet. A highly recommended take on self-torment and the difficulties in coping with adversity, Mean Creek is definitely one of 2004’s better efforts—I wish I’d gotten to it sooner.