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Paramount Studios presents
Mean Creek (2004)

"You know, if we hurt him, we'd be just as bad as him."
- Sam (Rory Culkin)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: January 24, 2005

Stars: Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck, Carly Schroeder
Director: Jacob Aaron Estes

MPAA Rating: R for for language, sexual references, teen drug and alcohol use
Run Time: 01h:29m:44s
Release Date: January 25, 2005
UPC: 097363443346
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- AA-B C+

DVD Review

As a kid, did you ever construct elaborate revenge fantasies when tormented by a schoolyard bully? I know I sure did. Hey, after enduring mental or physical abuse, it's natural to dream about the brainless thug receiving bloody retribution or being brutally humiliated in front of his peers. All sorts of crazy thoughts can swirl around an adolescent's brain, but putting a plan into action crosses a dangerous line, and can result in devastating consequences.

Mean Creek perceptively examines such a scenario and how it spirals out of control. With unflinching realism, this taut and, at times, harrowing drama shows how a group of misfit kids become carried away with exacting punishment on a mixed-up boy, without any thought of potential ramifications—to him or them. What starts as a form of warped entertainment ends in tragedy, and irrevocably alters all their lives.

After George (Josh Peck), an overweight loner, beats up shrimpy Sam (Rory Culkin) for messing with his video camera, Sam's protective older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) cooks up a scheme to teach the bully a lesson, and enlists the help of his friends, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley), to pull it off. The plan involves secretly luring George on a bogus canoe trip in honor of Sam's "birthday," then stripping him, pushing him into the water, and rowing away, so he'll be forced to walk home naked. Sam even invites his little girlfriend, Millie (Carly Schroeder), to come along and witness the revenge.

George eagerly takes the bait, yet once he joins Sam's "party," the conspirators see a different side of him. In the car, he's cheerful, amiable, even sweet. He brings Sam a present for his "birthday," and after a while alludes to some learning disabilities that may indirectly incite his aggression. Sure, George is immature, prone to outbursts, and socially inept, but he's also bereft of friends and welcomes this opportunity to be part of a clique. Sam and Clyde recognize his troubled nature and inherent goodness, and decide not to go through with the abusive plot. Convincing Rocky and especially ringleader Marty, however, isn't so easy.

Many have called Mean Creek an adolescent Deliverance in the way it chronicles an idyllic canoe trip gone horribly wrong, but its central tragedy more closely echoes the George Stevens classic A Place in the Sun. Just as the latter film shows how abandoning the idea of violence can't always prevent it, Mean Creek also details how guilt rarely distinguishes between thought and deed. Yes, accidents happen, but the cruel lesson the characters learn is that it's often possible to control the chain of events that causes them.

First-time writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes creates a mood of unendurable dread that hangs over the movie's first half. With brisk efficiency, he sets the vengeful plot in motion, then effectively drags out its execution. We know something horrible will happen, yet we're powerless to stop it, and Estes manipulates our emotions to such a degree, it's almost a relief when the tragedy finally occurs. He also perceptively depicts its aftermath, using silences and reaction shots to underscore the situation's gravity and the characters' stunned disbelief and aching regret. What happens on the river will haunt these kids all of their lives, and Estes masterfully conveys the impact.

The ensemble cast of largely unknown actors forms a tight unit, and rarely makes a wrong move. It's one thing to be an adolescent, but something altogether different to portray one, and the cast avoids such common teen-actor pitfalls as excessive angst and self-pity. Culkin uses his big eyes to palpably transmit fear, uncertainty, sorrow, and shame, but the best performance comes from Mechlowicz as a neglected teen whose swagger hides a desperate need for validation and a foreboding fatalism.

Mean Creek doesn't always ring true (especially after the tragedy), but it hits the right notes often enough to keep us absorbed and on edge. It shows how quickly lives can change, and how once lost, innocence can never be recaptured. That may sound like a cliché, but Mean Creek puts a fresh spin on its cautionary tale to make it resonate with both teens and adults.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: The transfer possesses a warmer, more polished look than most independent features, with excellent contrast, shadow detail, and sharpness. Colors are a bit muted (no doubt intentional, considering the downbeat nature of the story), but cinematographer Sharon Meir nicely captures the lush beauty of the river and forest. Fleshtones look natural, and hardly a speck or scratch mars the print.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Unfortunately, the DD 5.1 track disappoints. Although dialogue is generally easy to understand (sporadic instances of teen mumbling cause a few words to be missed) and the subtle but effective music score possesses good fullness and depth, the front-heavy mix rarely envelops. A wealth of opportunities exist for ambient effects during the river cruise, but no chirping birds, rustling leaves, or gentle breezes wrap around us like we hope they will. And with so much sound anchored in the front channels, we lose that feeling of immersion that a taut, tense drama like Mean Creek requires to fully engross its audience.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
6 Other Trailer(s) featuring Enduring Love, The Machinist, The United States of Leland, Love Me If You Dare, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Intimate Strangers
Storyboard
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director/writer Jacob Aaron Estes, editor Madeleine Gavin, cinematographer Sharon Meir, and actors Ryan Kelley, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck, and Carly Schroeder
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 54m:30s

Extras Review: The main extra is a rather blah audio commentary, featuring writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes, editor Madeleine Gavin, cinematographer Sharon Meir, and actors Ryan Kelley, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck and Carly Schroeder. Most of the scene-specific track centers around how the finished film differs from the shooting script, and all the cuts and edits that were necessary to achieve the right mood and pace. The filmmakers own up to a couple of goofs, and the boys fondly recall a good deal of horseplay on the set. The conversation gets a little raunchy at times, with too much emphasis on bodily functions, but with three adolescent males in the mix, I guess that's to be expected. Some comments from Estes about the genesis of the story and how it came to be filmed would have been enlightening, but he remains silent on the subject.

A dozen black-and-white storyboard drawings (including one from a deleted scene) and a handful of trailers complete the disc supplements.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

Mean Creek perceptively shows how tragedy can shape and ruin young lives. Writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes draws excellent performances from his teen ensemble, and casts an unsettling spell that lingers after the story ends. Those who enjoy understated drama and can handle the tough subject matter should definitely give this fine film a look. Recommended.

 


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