Everyone has revenge fantasies now and then. Writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes’ “Mean Creek” offers a decent lesson about the dangers of acting on those impulses.
While the plotting of the film feels forced at times, “Mean Creek” manages an occasionally harrowing look at the calamitous consequences that arise after a group of teens decide to exact some payback on a school bully.
Strong, naturalistic performances from the young and largely unknown cast, along with Estes’ observational documentary film style, lend considerable authenticity to the tale.
Rory Culkin stars as Sam, a young teen who takes a beating at the hands of chubby classmate George (Joshua Peck). Sam and gal pal Millie (Carly Schroeder) contemplate the age-old question of the tyrannized: If you could make your oppressor disappear, would you do it?
They arrive at no answer, but the idle conversation provides an ominous set-up for the main action of “Mean Creek.”
Sam’s older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) and his buddies Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) decide that George needs to get a taste of his own medicine.
The gang invites George to join their weekend boating trip along a desolate creek under the guise that it’s a birthday outing for Sam. The real plan is to pull a mean and humiliating — but physically harmless — prank on George.
But George, it turns out, is not your run-of-the-mill bully out to terrorize anyone in his path. He’s a lonely kid who acts out from a sense that he doesn’t belong.
While George should be suspicious at an out-of-the-blue invitation from a boy he’s bullied, he instead jumps at the chance to hang out with Sam and the others. When the big day arrives, a very different George shows up, bearing a nice birthday present for Sam and a puppy dog’s eagerness to win over what he views as a new passel of friends.
As they cruise along the creek, Sam and the others unexpectedly find they kind of like George. His zeal is a bit irritating, yet he’s a generally tolerable addition to the fold, and Sam persuades the others to call off their prank.
It’s at this point that Estes’ script strains credulity. Like switching on a light, George immediately relapses into boorish behavior, in a matter of minutes eroding the good will he’s built up with the others over the preceding hours.
The tragic results that follow are deeply disturbing and skillfully dramatized by Estes and his performers.
Yet unfortunately, the switch in George’s behavior is so abrupt, it momentarily yanks you out of the story, which rings less true because of the awkward character shift that leads to the climax.