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Mean Creek (15)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by director Jacob Aaron Estes, cinematographer Sharon Meir, editor Madeleine Gavin and actors Josh Peck, Trevor Morgan, Ryan Kelly and Carly Schroeder. Storyboard. Trailer. Film notes. Region 0.

DEATH and its consequences form the basis for the gripping coming-of-age drama, Mean Creek, an exceptionally well-acted drama that heralds the arrival of some major new talent.

Written and directed by first-timer, Jacob Aaron Estes, the film is a thought-provoking insight into modern adolescence, tackling issues such as bullying, revenge, friendship and responsibility.

And while it may be inspired by the likes of Stand By Me and River's Edge, it emerges as a very important film in its own right - one which doesn't resort to formula or provide any easy answers.

Set in a small Oregon town, the film picks up as shy teenager, Sam (Rory Culkin), is beaten up by an overweight bully, George (Joshua Peck), who has been terrorising many a teenage victim with his aggressive tactics.

Confiding to his protective older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), the two hatch a plan to gain some playful revenge, thereby enlisting the help of Rocky's friends, Clyde and Marty (Ryan Kelley and Scot Mechlowicz) and Sam's budding girlfriend, Millie (Carly Schroeder).

The plan is to entice George on a river trip by pretending it is Sam's birthday and then stripping and humiliating him in public.

But things begin to go wrong from the outset, as George gradually reveals a different side to himself, emerging as a lonely kid with learning difficulties who is desperate for friendship and attention.

But just as it seems that the prank might be called off, events take a tragic turn for the worst, forcing each of the surviving group members to confront the implications of their actions and decide whether to stand up and take responsibility or remain quiet for the sake of their friendships.

It is a tribute to the quality of Estes' script that the film never shys away from the difficult issues it confronts, while his direction unfolds in such a fashion that it never overshadows the work of his cast.

Mean Creek is at its most compelling during the moments building up to the accident, as each character is forced to deal with George's transformation while coming to terms with their own feelings and frustrations.

For Sam, especially, the futility of their revenge seems all-too apparent, even though George can change from sympathetic to obnoxious in an instant.

Yet George's continual goading of everyone's insecurities eventually tips Marty over the edge, especially when the issue of parents is cruelly brought into play.

The violence that ensues will change everyone's lives forever, yet far from over-dramatizing the events, the film never loses a grip on reality, allowing the repurcussions to unfold in an intense and believable fashion.

Much of this is due to the grounded performances of its superb cast, who each deliver sincere and complex turns, thereby pulling audiences in a lot of different directions.

Peck, especially, is terrific as George, exuding menace and vulnerability with equal measure, while Mechlowicz's rebellious Marty exposes the confusion of his upbringing in a raw, honest fashion.

Culkin and Schroeder, too, balance the sensitivity of their characters with a mounting sense of despair over the hopelessness of their situation.

Mean Creek deservedly won the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2004, as well as The Humanitas Award at the Sundance Film Festival, which only serves to underline its impact on the coming-of-age genre.

It's a riveting character study that really deserves to make a big splash with audiences of every age.

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