The Adolescent Sport of Staying Afloat

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The interesting aspect of teen movies is the portrayal of the simplified world of adolescence. The world is so complex and yet teens are grouped into certain categories or are placed in a hierarchy before they become individuals. We’ve seen this in wonderful movies like “Mean Girls” and “Elephant” where the system is challenged or modified. “Mean Creek” features kids who are aware of their rigid roles, trying to get out of it, but somehow stuck.

The story goes like this. Sammy (Rory Culkin) gets a black eye after he touches a bully’s video camera. Sammy’s older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan) and his close friend Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) scheme for the bully to get a taste of his own medicine. They plan a boating trip and invite the bully. Along for the paddling are Clyde (who’s iffy about the scheme) and Sammy’s girlfriend Millie (who’s not even aware of the scheme).

The movie doesn’t really milk the suspense on what’s about to happen. It doesn’t blindside us. Rather, it builds on the dynamics between the kids to develop the drama. There are apparent two sides and it’s amazing how one kid after another change their mind as to which side to lean on. And mind you, this also reflects the vulnerable boat that’s keeping them afloat. A certain unbalance can submerge them in trouble.

“Mean Creek” boasts a superb ensemble of young actors. I’m happy to report that the six actors (all under 18) are about to receive a “Special Recognition” award in the upcoming Independent Spirit awards. I look forward to their future careers because they’re smart enough to choose a compelling movie like this. Josh Peck is alarmingly real as George, the unsuspecting bully. We can see that George is basically a nice kid, lonely even, but he’s still a bully. Scott Mechlowicz, who is darn likable in “Eurotrip”, is so good here as the group leader who can’t see the good side of George and therefore, refuses to abort the plan. Carly Schroeder (Millie) is a revelation, especially when she refuses to give up on an excruciating scene. Culkin and Morgan are believable as brothers. The older brother’s intention might be to protect his younger sib, but it is Sammy who makes better decisions. Among the six characters, I think the strongest among them is Clyde, in a stunning subtle performance by Ryan Kelley. Clyde is the easiest of targets in the sport of name-calling. Kelley’s holding-back reactions are priceless.

Much credit also goes to Jacob Estes, the writer and director of the film. He has written six wonderful characters that are three-dimensionally human. He sets up the characters so right that when the boat stops we fear for them. I came away from the movie though, knowing it could have been better. When the third act begins, the movie is sort of clueless as the kids on what to do. The tension quickly vanishes. The soundtrack sneaks in as if to fill the void. Rather, it made me aware I was watching a movie. It would have been wiser to bring in the uncomfortable silence to haunt the kids. Another technique that kept me at a distant is the independent-style of conjuring up images for the sake of symbolism. I’m okay with it as long as it doesn’t test my patience.This indie barely made any profit in the theaters last summer. It was slapped with a R rating and its intended audience could not be reached… legally. Now, it has resurfaced in DVD and time for the rest to discover what happened along the creek. And don’t worry, Dawson’s not there.

Grade: A-

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