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The River Wild

'Mean Creek'—of the making of bullies, there is no end

By Richard von Busack

IN A PERFECT WORLD, ushers would misguide audiences going to see Mean Creek and audiences going to see Without a Paddle. Art-house film fanciers could wind up seeing that dumb movies are never completely dumb. Seth Green lovers could have a surprise at the quality of Jacob Estes' independent movie, which is far more compelling than Open Water.

Estes' Mean Creek is an unadorned story of childhood bullying, revenged. It's set in a small-town back corner of Oregon. In a schoolyard, Sam (Rory Culkin) innocently touches a camera belonging to the school bully, George (Josh Peck). He's roughed up, and Sam's brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), and a couple of his friends decide to get payback by humiliating George under the guise of a weekend boating trip down a nearby river. On the way, the gang of six, including Sam's young girlfriend, Millie (Carly Schroeder, who excels in the part), has a change of heart. George the bully has a pathetic, tragically needy side. His lashing out is so obviously due to mental problems that even these kids get it. They decide to let the George off the hook, but the situation worsens as the rowboat heads deeper into the wilderness.

Estes is a former UCSC student who presented his one-act play Leigh's Outrunning Her Mefa and Pefa Tonight in 1993. (Apparently, the scene in Mean Creek of a slug crawling on one of the cast's arm wasn't an homage to the old school.) Estes studied as an actor everywhere from ACT to Second City in Chicago, but the catalyst for Mean Creek came from an incident of harassment at a Chestnut Street basketball court in San Francisco. Estes had been planning to write a story of children facing a moral crisis. After he had a couple of encounters with a crazed player, he decided to "take a revenge fantasy to the more intellectual level."

Peck's George had some of the critics muttering that he was what a realistic version of what Cartman in South Park would be like. "Josh didn't say that he'd been through that kind of bullying," Estes told me by phone from Portland. "Overweight kids are persecuted in this country, and obviously, he'd been a target. Instead of using the comedy he uses to deflect trouble in real life, he turned it to hostility in this film."

The soundtrack by underrated indie-movie composers tomandandy fits the almost mystical light of the river. The Oregon scenery gives that sense, as Pope wrote, of how "every prospect pleases, but only man is vile"—the wanton littering and dick wielding hurts to watch. "Nothing beats a good piss in the river," snorts Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), who turns out to have a bad bullying streak himself. Despite the quality of this indie film, it seems slightly aimed for young adults—mostly because of the complete obliviousness of the parents to what's going on. Teenage films always see parents as silhouettes, and you wait in vain for an adult performance that gives a different angle on the kid's world. Still, Estes' seriousness and compassion are both traits worth welcoming to the screen.

Mean Creek (R; 89 min.), directed and written by Jacob Estes, photographed by Sharon Meir and starring Rory Culkin, Trevor Morgan and Josh Peck, opens Friday.

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From the August 25-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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