Why Mean Creek has been released as a feature film is beyond my guessing. Don’t they still show Afterschool Specials on TV? For those young or naïve enough to need to be taught that bullies are people, too, and that their actions spring not from random deposits of evil but from unhappy childhoods, often from being bullied themselves, it may yet do some good. For those in the audience who prefer not simplistic moral lessons but actual entertainment on the screen, well, there are a good many other films in current release.
Mean Creek’s plot is simplicity itself. A boy who has been picked on (Rory Culkin) is persuaded by his older brother and friends to seek a humiliating but harmless revenge upon his tormentor. Predictably, it goes awry and the young cast must decide if they will try to cover up their misadventure or take responsibility for it (thus becoming noble and mature, as young characters in a “serious” film must unfailingly move from adolescence into adulthood in a single, clean yank, like pulling off a bandage).
The film has no suspense. From the beginning it’s telegraphed that all will not go well, and the doom-laden atmosphere casts a pall such that even when the characters are supposed to be enjoying themselves the audience can’t respond. We sit grinding our teeth and shifting in our seats, waiting for the inevitable disaster. There are moments when we begin to identify with one character or another, but then some horribly plodding line of dialogue or obvious visual symbolism crashes down like a lead balloon, and you’re thrust right out of your identification and indeed out of the film entirely. You watch yourself watching the movie and not reacting, and you may be reassured by how much more complicated and human you are than anyone on screen.
Which is not to say that the young cast doesn’t try. Scott Mechlowicz, who was able to convince us that he was smarter than he looked in the trashy (but mildly amusing) Eurotrip, now convinces us that he’s creepier than he looks as well. His low-rent junior hoodlum (curiously named Martini Blank) is the most vivid thing on the screen. As the plot plods on, Martini develops from a snide wiseguy into a petty tyrant capable of great verbal and physical violence. His cocky swagger is thin as muslin, and the terrified face beneath keeps peeking through, offering glimpses of a stunning recklessness. We don’t trust him; his mere presence onscreen is an implied threat. His final scene, in which he both accepts and mourns what has become of him, is truly disturbing.
Another strong performance comes from Carly Schroeder, who plays Millie, the one girl in this sea of adolescent testosterone. Schroeder looks a bit like a very young Patricia Arquette and, though she has the misfortune of being the one female character and thus the presumed emotional and moral center of the group, she rises above this overly simple conception through sheer, flinty will. Millie doesn’t take any crap off anyone, no matter how intimidating, and at the film’s end it’s her remorse that is the most wrenching.
Josh Peck is convincing as George, the bully who gets his comeuppance and then some. He adeptly handles the character’s desperate neediness and his ill-considered attempts to hide it, and he’s fearlessly willing to be unlikable and embarrassingly unselfconscious. Unfortunately, he’s also saddled with the worst, least lifelike dialogue in the script.
Young Rory Culkin is an expressive actor, and his performance might have moved me more if I hadn’t found his mere Culkinness so distracting. After 15 years of Macaulay and Kieran, it’s impossible to look at a Culkin child and not be conscious that it’s yet another one. Still, I caught convincing touches, such as the wonderfully abashed look on his face after his first kiss.
Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes is just 30 himself, and it’s possible that in time he will become an adept filmmaker. For now, though, he’s a writer whose script has as many holes as solid patches. The opening scene makes no sense if you reexamine it knowing what you find out subsequently, and if I’m not mistaken the film contains a digital mini camcorder that produces recordings on VHS tape. The simplistic cause-effect relationships that make up the shallow psychology of Estes’s characters is quite easy to grasp the first time, but he nevertheless forces the actors to verbally reiterate information that the film’s action already has made clear.
It’s disturbing that such a young filmmaker is so unconvincing in telling a story about adolescents. The way these kids talk and act is not just contrived, it’s also outdated (find me a 16-year-old boy who fantasizes about Heather Locklear or Shannen Doherty, I dare you). The film gives us an adult’s idea of what kids are like, avoiding the complications and inconsistencies of actual adolescence. There are, however, real live adolescents playing the roles (and it’s refreshing to see that the casting is mostly spot-on for the characters’ ages), and they do bring the script a bit of that actual hormonal wildness. Their youth and vigor, though, is not enough to overcome the ham-handed dialogue.
I can’t conceive of an audience for whom this film is intended. The story is too dark and violent (and R-rated) for parents to want their actual adolescents to see it, and adults will be put off by the shallow moralizing. Perhaps it’s intended only for critics, who will tend to take any film with an obvious moral and condescendingly pat it on the head.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()