The stink of death hovers over Mean Creak, writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes’s debut feature in which a bunch of kids struggle with the moral consequences of a revenge plot that goes disastrously out of control. Said plot comes together after Sam (Rory Culkin), a mild-mannered high school kid, gets the shit kicked out of him by George (Josh Peck), a schoolyard bully and all-around asshole. So, Sam’s brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan) and his rowdy friend, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), arrange for a group boating excursion, inviting George along with the intention of humiliating him in the isolation of the wilds. That, of course, is not what happens and when the traumatized group lands ashore again, the cocky and confident Marty finds his authority shaken.
Mean Creek slots itself nicely in that catalog of macabre coming-of-age stories like River’s Edge and Stand by Me by way of the existential panic of Deliverance. But while Estes strives for those movies’ moral complexities, his script feels more like an ad hoc grafting of psychodrama and coming-of-age stitched together by an “alterno-hip” soundtrack. The script manages a few compelling characters, but the rest falls into that non-descript Troubled Teenager category, even farcically so as in the case of the “sensitive boy” sulking in the company of his gay father and his boyfriend.
As Sam, Culkin does a creditable job, but he’s largely a passive character until the final moments of the film. The script might have attained a wonderful poignancy if it had stayed inside Sam’s impressionable mind, processing the moral ebb and flow of the story’s events and culminating in the choice that he ultimately makes for himself. But by the time Sam does take his stand, Estes has diffused the script’s attentions so liberally that Sam’s actions, as weighty as they are, have little impact. In George and Marty, on the other hand, Estes manages a pair of sharply drawn characters. In the movie’s pivotal sequence, it is Marty, a young man driven by his own private demons, who confronts the hulking George, clearly a budding and compulsive sociopath. Indeed, Mean Creak‘s most truthful moment belongs to Marty, one in which the boy, wracked with tears and brandishing a gun, finds himself face to face with the rest of his life.
Mean Creak is also propped up by Estes’s flair for texture. Its close spaces—cars, small rooms, the boat—are vividly realized in the movie’s intimate framings, in the crispness of its ordinary details and sounds, all of which serve to agitate the tensions eddying just below the surface. That all gives Mean Creek its raw, intriguing volatility, but that—and its genuinely talented cast—can do little to save a story muddled by a lack of clarity and a bluntness of purpose.