A kid sets his video camera on the ground to tape himself shooting hoops. As he misses a couple of shots, another, smaller kid comes by and picks up the camera. The first boy, George (Josh Peck), descends on the second, Sam (Rory Culkin), with a stunning fury, cursing, beating, and threatening to kill him, a minutes-long rampage that startles their schoolyard audience. Cut to Sam in close-up, a bag of frozen vegetables held to his blackening eye, as he explains that his lot in life appears to be just this: bearing the brunt of George’s outsized rage at the world. Nonsense, asserts his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan). They can fix it.
“They” are comprised mainly of Rocky and his swaggery best friend, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), who set up a group outing, in supposed celebration of Sam’s birthday (though it’s not). Along with George, whom they decide to “teach a lesson,” they also invite Rocky’s friend Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and bright blond Millie (Carly Schroeder), on whom Sam has an unworked-out crush. The plan is to seduce George into thinking he’s been accepted by the cool kids (“Awesome,” he says in response to the invite), then remove his clothing and leave him to hobble home in utter humiliation. While 12-year-old Sam is quite mortified when he finds out Millie is coming too, he goes along, thinking it will at least put an end to his ordeals at school.
While Sam is the center of Jacob Aaron Estes’ Mean Creek, he is also passive and confused, a boy adrift among competing forces. Fretful, sensitive, and desirous, he’s also self-aware in a way that the older boys are not (or at least, don’t show). And yet, his unease doesn’t make him special; on the contrary, he’s an ordinary child increasingly swept along by extraordinary circumstances. At the same time, it’s his sensitivity that attracts Millie, who is herself propitiously average, rather than some idealized movie girl. She first appears, with Sam, sitting in a tree overlooking the schoolyard where George is again acting out his meanness; she asks Sam whether, if he could, he would wish his tormenter to drop dead, he’s uncertain. Her question suggests her empathy with his ongoing pain, as well as her own violent fantasies, her childish capacity to wish on the bully (or anyone) a bad end. At the same time, his non-answer has as much to do with his desire to please her as his own doubts. He doesn’t want to be the bully, only be rid of him.
Set in rural Oregon (and moodily scored by the excellent Tomandandy), Estes’ film considers carefully how kids interact, their hierarchies and fears, their courageous choices, their coming to moral sensibility. Much as in Larry Clark’s controversial Bully (2001) or David Gordon Green’s superb George Washington (2000), the crisis the kids face in Mean Creek doesn’t produce a resolution so much as it raises questions about social systems, absorbed and acted out by kids. The kids here want to fit in but also stand out, they want to dominate but they also want to be liked. Even more complexly, the movie’s crisis doesn’t produce good and bad behaviors, so much as it challenges such moralistic definitions, exploring the pressures — peer and personal — that lead to kids’ seeming deviance.
To these ends, George — the seeming villain — is as complicated a character as Sam. Hardly sympathetic, neither is he wholly despicable. Alone at home, he confides in his video camera and watches himself on the monitor as he makes a diary of his desire to be accepted and fear of being alone, imagining he is speaking to a future audience who will appreciate him. These scenes in his room make George seem much like Sam, hesitant and expectant. When the other kids come by to pick him up, and he’s brought along a birthday present for Sam, the two look almost as if they might have been friends in another movie. This despite the fact that George is twice Sam’s size, and chatters awkwardly, boasting about sexual encounters he’s plainly never had, and Sam sits quietly, observant and already regretful. He realizes, almost sorrowfully, that George only wants “to get friends. Everybody wants that.”
By the time Millie discovers the scheme and demands that Sam call it off, he’s quite willing to back off. Rocky, however, is amped for the confrontation and loathe to let it go; revealed early on to be living with his own abusive older brother (Branden Williams), following their sadistic father’s death, Rocky embodies a learned meanness and violence. That the film shows very little of the kids’ parents underscores that they are finding their way without supervision or useful models. It’s telling that George’s mother appears briefly, in doorways, not quite inside her child’s experience. Faced with violence, the kids’ strategy for dealing with it emerges, understandably, in a framework of media imagery and recurring, learned behaviors.
Even if they do “know better,” as Sam and Millie seem to, they’re caught up in escalating circumstances. So, once on the boat headed downriver, they brag (George asserts he’s “smoked a doobie”) and bicker, until at last they agree to a game of “Truth or Dare,” which leads to expected disaster, given the film’s title. The very terms of the game — truth or dare — speak to Mean Creek‘s insistent insights. For Sam, especially, truth and dare collapse onto one another, and neither has clear boundaries. What he once wanted — revenge, a sense of superiority, Millie — suddenly seems awful. Even Millie, initially the most obviously morally grounded figure, displays alarming coldness when faced with an impossible choice, a coldness Sam witnesses and might understand.
In fact, the youngest members of the group provide the film’s most sobering storyline. If they were adults, in an action movie (or even teens in River’s Edge, which Mean Creek resembles), Sam and Millie’s dire circumstance might lead to the sort of desperate, ardent sex that happens in such movies. But here, they’re too young, too overwhelmed, and too focused on what actually needs to be done. And so, they are at once less childish, more haunting, and more respected by Estes’ script than most children in the movies.