It's remarkable, when you think about it, that young people manage to survive adolescence without permanent psychological damage. It's a time of so much confusion and frustration, of such unmediated unfairness and unfocused rage, that it's a tribute to the resilience of youth that most of us come through it more or less in one piece.
Of course, you wouldn't know any of this from the flood of teenage films the movie business continually supplies; the bet Hollywood makes is that the reality is simply too painful for either kids or their elders to want to spend money to relive it in a theater.
So young people get gross-out teen comedies and sanitized fantasies, and adults get exploitation films disguised as cautionary tales à la "Thirteen." Which is why something like "Mean Creek" is such a surprise and a revelation.
Written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes in an assured feature debut and performed by an expert young cast, "Mean Creek" combines sensitivity and teenage themes in a way that is all but unheard of these days.
The plot, with echoes of "Deliverance" and Tim Hunter's "River's Edge," has familiar elements, but the film's keen sense of interpersonal dynamics, its emphasis on non-exploitative honesty and its concern with larger issues set it on firm ground of its own.
Even the subtle, metaphorical way the film uses the word "mean" in the title, as opposed to the more blatant "Mean Girls," says a great deal about the project's acuity. And while "Mean Creek" is ultimately about responsibility and the difficulty of doing the right thing, it is grounded initially in the crucible of bullying, in big kids being mean and smaller ones having to take it.
The smaller one in question is young Sam, looking about 12 and played by the slightly older Rory Culkin. The best known of the young actors in the "Mean Creek" cast, Culkin is also shaping up as the most gifted member of his family. He makes fine use, as he did in "You Can Count On Me," of the air of indefinable sadness that never seems to leave him.
The bane of young Sam's life in his small Oregon town is George (Josh Peck), an overweight, older-than-his-classmates bully who opens the film beating Sam up, and not for the first time. This increasingly bugs Sam's older teenage brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), who finds his best friend, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), equally irked. Marty proclaims, "I say we smoke that ham," and a plan for revenge on a river trip specially proposed for the purpose is hatched.
Also on the boat are two other kids, each with a very particular personality. Clyde (Ryan Kelley) is the third wheel in the Rocky-Marty friendship, an insecure kid whose equilibrium is not helped by teasing about his home situation. And Millie (Carly Schroeder) is young Sam's level-headed classmate and soul mate, shown in a charming moment writing out a list of "Things to Say to Sam on Our Date."
That ability to capture in an unforced way what's natural, to convey exactly how his characters would act, is one of writer-director Estes' strongest gifts. "Mean Creek" also understands how ever-changing, evanescent and even uncontrollable emotions are at that age, the way at a given moment taking action can seem wildly urgent, when in reality it's clearly not. Estes also has the knack of creating characters who gradually deepen in complexity. Marty, the staunch enemy of George's excesses, turns out to have a more intimate connection to emotional depredations. And big bad George is revealed to be a much more complicated individual than anyone on the boat is prepared for, hard to hate, harder to understand, hardest of all to stomach.
The fact that "Mean Creek" can be so specific with its characters is a tribute not only to the writing and directing but also to the acting. Aside from Culkin, a familiar face, and Mechlowicz, a talented newcomer, the other four kids are played by young actors with considerable experience (most of it on television) if not marquee names. They must have jumped at the chance to do something with this kind of texture, and the results speak for themselves.
Beautifully photographed by Sharone Meir almost entirely with natural light and a hand-held camera, "Mean Creek" benefits from a haunting sense of place, offering a picture of the river trip as an out-of-real-time experience. The film's score, by Tom Hajdu of tomandandy, adds to the mood, but "Mean Creek's" greatest asset is its sense of truth. It doesn't pander to or indulge its characters like the teen films we're used to. It looks at them straight ahead and with respect. It's something you wish Hollywood, and even parents, did more often.
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual references, teen drug and alcohol use
Times guidelines: Incendiary language, a scene of death
Rory Culkin ... Sam
Ryan Kelley ... Clyde
Scott Mechlowicz ... Marty
Trevor Morgan ... Rocky
Josh Peck ... George
Carly Schroeder ... Millie
A Whitewater Films presentation, released by Paramount Classics. Director Jacob Aaron Estes. Producers Rick Rosenthal, Susan Johnson, Hagai Shaham. Executive producers Nancy Stephens, Gigi Pritzker, Deborah Del Prete. Screenplay Jacob Aaron Estes. Cinematographer Sharone Meir. Editor Madeline Gavin. Costumes Cynthia Morrill. Music tomandandy. Production design Greg McMickle. Art director Betsy Goslin. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In limited release.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun