Film about bullies captures delicate emotions on screen

4/5 stars

Everyone knows that kids can be mean sometimes, but what happens when bullying gets out of control? In his film “Mean Creek,” new director Jacob Estes tackles adolescence and the struggle to feel accepted. Well received at Sundance and Cannes, among other film festivals, “Mean Creek” is intelligent and real, not afraid to confront the many truths of growing up.

When Rocky (Trevor Morgan) learns that an overweight and misunderstood bully, George (Josh Peck), has been picking on his younger brother, Sam (played by Rory Culkin), he conceives a plan to get back at the bully. Rocky, along with some friends, sets up a fishing trip and invites George, hoping to embarrass him during a game of truth and dare. The scheme is thrown off when the trip begins and, as George begins to open up, the kids realize that he may not be so bad after all. But Rocky’s friend is convinced that the plan needs to be carried out, and tragedy ensues.

Reminiscent of the Larry Clark film “Bully,” “Mean Creek” is not only about a prank gone wrong – it is about life and death. As the kids travel by boat along the river, they descend into their own “heart of darkness,” exploring what happens when conventions and restraints are removed. There is a certain feeling – a combination of remorse, dread and the desire to go back in time – that people feel once they have done something that is irreversible. Estes captures this feeling perfectly on screen. It almost hurts to watch the events unfold, knowing that with each step it gets all the more difficult to turn back, soon becoming impossible.

Estes, who also wrote the screenplay, succeeds in gaining sympathy for all of the characters, portraying each in their own respectable light. The camera treats every kid, from the bully to the bait, equally – no one is shown as more deserving of praise or criticism than another. Each character is complex, containing all of the emotions and instincts that young people live with every day. We are able to see why the bully acts the way he does, yet he is never glorified.

Beautifully shot against the lovely scenic backdrop of a small Oregon town, the film takes on a naturalistic feel. In both the visuals and the plot, everything is seamless as it comes together. Events unfold as naturally as the boat advances along the river, with nothing out of place. Estes seems to have perfect command over the film and its setting. With help from the talented young actors, all of whom give excellent and deeply moving performances, Estes is able to create a convincing story about a situation which we may not all recognize, but with which we are definitely familiar.

“Mean Creek” is a film worth seeing. It is not a children’s movie, nor is it solely about kids. Estes is able to show that every individual has good and bad inside of himself and that ultimately it is the situations that one is placed in that will determine how he reacts. “Mean Creek” is a haunting picture that draws out the deepest emotions harbored within every individual.