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Mean Creek (2004)

Beneath the surface, everyone has a secret.

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 87 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

From Mark Twain’s classic novel ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ to films as varied as ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Deliverance’, the river has always been a wild, seductive and unpredictable space where character is tested, innocence fast becomes ballast, and there is no going back unchanged. Yet if the recent release of Without A Paddle (2004), with all its dumbed-down meanderings, threatened to dilute the dark allegorical powers of the river, then Jacob Aaron Estes’ directorial debut ‘Mean Creek’ muddies those old waters once again. Having already earned selection for the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, and won various prizes at Sundance and the Independent Spirit Awards, it is a coming-of-age morality tale which dares, like ‘The River’s Edge’ and ‘Stand By Me’ before it, to take its drifting teen characters very seriously as they journey into the murky new terrain of truth and responsibility.

After diminutive, fair-minded Sam (Rory Culkin) is bullied in school by the much bigger George (Josh Peck), Sam’s older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) proposes getting some payback, and enlists the help of his friends Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and badboy Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) to come up with a plan that will humiliate George without actually harming him. The following Saturday, George joins the four boys, along with Sam’s girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder), on a boat trip down river that he thinks is in celebration of Sam’s birthday. From the start the conspirators, apart from Marty, have cold feet about their planned prank, but personalities clash, a catastrophic crisis emerges, and as they struggle to do the right thing they find themselves flailing about with their heads barely above water.

“There must have been a reason”, says George as he tries to remember what provoked him, some time ago, to hit Clyde with a bat. Much later, and in a starkly different context, Marty tries to convince Rocky that “everything happens for a reason” – unconsciously echoing the words of his nemesis. Indeed, one need not look far beneath the surface to see the reason that both these characters have become bullies. Despite the difference in their age and socio-economic background, Marty and George are painted in remarkably similar colours, making the film’s dénouement doubly tragic. Fat, dyslexic, friendless George has himself been the target of endless taunts, and even in the opening scene his attack on Sam, while disproportionate in its viciousness, is not entirely unprovoked – and troubled, unloved Martin is subject to violent bullying from his own older brother. Both lack a father, and their mutual insistence on calling Clyde “faggot” and baiting him for having two fathers at home seems rooted as much in envy as in homophobia (certainly Clyde’s fathers are the only parents in the film who seem to show any interest or concern in the affairs of their child). Rocky, in the meantime, is poised somewhere between his younger brother’s basic decency and his friend Marty’s spiteful rebellion without a cause – while earnest Millie becomes an unwilling accessory in the boys’ own adventure.

It is clear from quite early on where the river is taking this rag-tag group, but Estes invests his drama with more than enough psychological complexity and moral depth to keep things afloat – and the performances from all six leads show a mature sensitivity to nuance that one would never expect from actors so young.

It's Got: Six stand-out performances from child actors who annoy only when they are supposed to; a snaking river; a video camera; a script full of subtlety and moral complexity; and some not entirely gratuitous snail abuse.

It Needs: A life jacket.


Six adolescents up the creek and in deep water make for a morally complex odyssey.