I’ve seen Mean Creek twice now, and it improves with a second viewing. It’s much more complex, truthful, and intriguing than I thought on the first go round.

I’ve also had the privilege of sitting down with director Jacob Aaron Estes, an approachable, easygoing, good-humored guy, refreshingly humble and softspoken. My full review of the film and my interview with Estes will appear in the next issue of Paste Magazine.

In the meantime, there’s a review up at the Catholic News Service that’s fairly accurate.

Mean Creek’s been called a “teen Heart of Darkness,” and I can see why. It’s about some kids who go out on a river boat to play a prank on a playground bully who “has it coming.” His worst behavior brings out the worst in them. You’ll likely experience a rising panic as the journey progresses, wishing you could reach into the movie and turn that boat around. Then you’ll want to give all of their parents a good talking-to.What unfolds is, at times, predictable, but the characters are all thoroughly convincing and filmed in a naturalistic style that recalls George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Raising Victor Vargas.

Rory Culkin shows even more potential here than in Signs and You Can Count On Me—his portrayal of a bullied young kid whose fleeting thoughts of revenge lead to a traumatizing experience of human evil is haunting. That kid’s intuitive sense of portraying vulnerability, confusion, fear, and need is rather unsettling.

His co-stars are equally strong, especially Scott Mechlowicz, who may have found a star-making role as Marty, the oldest of the bunch, a teen abused by his father. His reckless and destructive behavior is at once terrifying and completely believable.

The location shooting in Oregon is at times quite beautiful, and yet dismaying in its vision of a rural setting devoid of traditional families. These kids have no parents, it seems. At least, those that do certainly don’t seem to expect that their parents will check up on them at all. The way that these kids’ misbehavior stems from the absence of fathers, mothers, and God in their lives is something to consider; their thoughts about their families and beliefs are only ever-so-slightly suggested by their comments, but they are, I think, the key to understanding the movie.

There’s also a lot going on in the film’s exploration about the way that boys become men, or at least the way they THINK they should become men.I recommend that discerning grownups catch this one at the theatre while it’s available and, if you have mature, thinking teens, that you consider taking them when you see it a second time and prepare for a tough discussion afterward.

Cautionary note: A lot of harsh, crude language, typical of lonely and insecure teenage boys posturing to impress each other. This may lead you to decide that the film is inappropriate for your teens, but I’d argue that they encounter this kind of thing all the time in a public school and it would be better to talk it over with them than pretend it doesn’t exist.

 

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