“This shot here, Sharon, you were saying, is like a window opening up onto this kid’s world.” Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes makes exactly the right point when watching the first shot of his first feature, Mean Creek. He’s setting up, with the help of his DP Sharon Meier, the film’s ongoing investigation of a world comprised of kids, with precious little intervention or even observation by adults. The result over such isolation is alarming and tragic.
The shot they’re talking about — for the DVD commentary track, which participants include editor Madeleine Gavin as well as young actors Trevor Morgan, Ryan Kelley, Carly Schroeder, Josh Peck (who plays the bully George and introduces himself as “a Scorpio”) — literally takes young George’s point of view, as he sets up his video camera to tape himself shooting hoops. When he misses a couple of shots, Sam (Rory Culkin) picks up the camera. George descends on him with a 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 (Morgan). They can fix it.
As the commentary crew watches the scene, Estes asks Morgan how it felt to be working with Culkin on this first day of shooting. Morgan mumbles a little, then admits, “I’m not sure what to say really, I’m just babbling because you asked me the question. I felt like he was my little brother, which sounds, like, so horrible, because how egotistical is that? He’s got like eight older brothers or something like that.” You might realize here that the kids had much to contribute to the film’s refreshingly frank tone.
As the brothers develop a plan to deal with George — walking under power lines — Estes adds, “The visual theme of power sort of creeped in without us even being aware of it, when we were location scouting. The script didn’t call for them to be walking under power lines, and in the next shot, you’ll see where they’re at this big giant dam.” This “theme of power” is subtle and undeniable, as the kids gather their ideas, building on each other’s mostly childish ideas of revenge. The group, including Rocky’s swaggery best friend, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), sets up a group outing, in supposed celebration of Sam’s birthday (though it’s not). They also invite Rocky’s friend Clyde (Kelley) and Sam’s crush, Millie (Schroeder). They 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. And here too, the commentary folks — in particular Gavin and Estes — note their decisions concerning the construction of George’s arrogance and vulnerability: we didn’t want to make him “too sympathetic,” Gavin notes, but at the same time, they cut a crass joke that George makes in the car en route to the creek, in order to preserve the audience’s “confusion” about him.
Sam is the center of Mean Creek. But he’s also confusing, as heroes go, passive and contradictory, a boy adrift among competing forces — like a lot of kids in life, if not in movies. 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. 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. The crisis they 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 likable, 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. Sam and Millie’s can’t resolve their dire predicament. They’re too young, too overwhelmed, and too focused on what they think needs to be done, as a matter of grim survival. And so, they are at once less childish, more haunting, and more respected by Estes’ script than most children in the movies.