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Moriarty Takes A Trip Down MEAN CREEK!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

First films are tough. Hell, getting any movie made is a tricky proposition, but there’s so much pressure on young filmmakers to define themselves that it may be the most daunting moment in any career. Jacob Aaron Estes had a bit of a head start thanks to winning the Nicoll Fellowship in Screenwriting for his script called MEAN CREEK. That had to be a confidence builder, and it may explain how self-assured the finished film is.

Stories about bullies aren’t particularly new, and neither are stories about disaffected youth struggling to deal with their own tragic decisions. STAND BY ME and BULLY are both obvious precursors, while I personally feel that the longest shadow in the genre is cast by the incredible RIVER’S EDGE. There’s something about the details of that movie that sticks with me, and a big part of that is the cast. So many of those young actors have gone on to great, interesting careers. MEAN CREEK may well turn out to be a launching pad for several interesting film careers, as well, because Estes has gotten strong work out of his entire young cast. At several turns in the movie, people reveal surprising sides to themselves, one of the great strengths of the script. Estes doesn’t seem content to offer up easy portraits of these kids, and the film is richer for it.

The movie takes place in a small town in Oregon. In the opening scene, the stakes are set up quite clearly. George (Joshua Peck) is a big kid, awkward, obsessed with his video camera. He sets it up so he can tape himself shooting baskets, and while he’s doing that, Sam (Rory Culkin) wanders up and starts to mess with the camera. George fucking snaps and jumps on Sam, thrashing him and swearing a blue streak. This isn’t the first time George has beaten Sam up, either, and when Sam gets home, he tells his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) all about it. It’s just venting, one brother blowing off steam to another, but Rocky’s tired of seeing George pick on younger, weaker kids. George has been held back several years because of his learning and emotional disabilities. Rocky and his friends Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechowicz) have had to deal with George themselves, and when Rocky tells them about Sam’s problems, they share his anger.

Estes gives us glimpses into each kid’s home life so we get a real sense of where they’re coming from. Most bullies feel powerless in their lives, so they look for someone they can have power over. What’s great about this particular story is how hard it is to pin down just who the bully is. Marty leaps at the opportunity to punish George for his abuse of Sam, and we see that he bullies both Clyde and Rocky in their friendships. Once he gets an idea, he won’t back down, and Clyde and Rocky know better than to argue with him. Of course, when Marty’s alone with his older brother Kile (Brandon Williams), Marty’s just a scared little kid, all his swagger sapped.

The plan that’s hatched for dealing with George seems simple. They’re going to lure him out onto the river, then strip him naked, throw him in, and let him walk home like that. Nothing’s ever that simple, though, and as son as they pick George up, things aren’t what they planned. They lure him on the trip by saying it’s Sam’s birthday, and he seems really desperate to connect with the group. Sam invites along Milly (Carly Schroeder), a girl he likes, and she’s the only one besides George who isn’t in on the joke. She figures it out quickly, though, and pushes Sam to call it off. She can see how hard George works to fit in, and Estes does a great job at showing us the loneliness and frustration that drive George. This kid doesn’t fit anywhere, and as the trip begins and they hit the river, he expresses an almost childlike joy at being included.

I’m not going to discuss any more of what happens out on the river. What’s important is that Estes allows it all to unfold naturally, and he really trusts his cast. Rory Culkin continues to impress the hell out of me. He did strong work in SIGNS and YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, but this film feels like an arrival for him. Sam’s the moral center of the film. We end up holding onto him as, one by one, everyone else fails in one way or another. Culkin’s got a great soulful quality, like he’s lived several lifetimes already, and it gives him a quiet commanding authority that makes him so compelling. Marty stands at the other end of the moral scale, and Scott Mechlowicz delivers a star-making performance. He’s most recognizable as the lead from EURO TRIP earlier this year, but this role pushes him much further. It’s obvious that he’s got real range, and he can play dangerous. Expect to see his frequently in the next few years. The film couldn’t exist without the work of Josh Peck as George. He can play desperate and lonely and ugly with soft-pedaling, an impressive feat for such a young actor. When he melts down and starts to verbally eviscerate everyone on the boat, it’s horrifying. You don’t want to watch, but you can’t look away. Peck’s not going to be as immediately easy to cast in other films, but he’s got an obvious talent that should be rewarded.

Tech credits are fine, but not particularly memorable. It’s not that kind of film. There’s a rough-hewn quality to it that places all the emphasis on performance and character. If there’s one quality that best describes the work Estes does here, it’s “empathy.” MEAN CREEK may not hit theaters with the hype of OPEN WATER or the controversy of THE BROWN BUNNY and THE WOODSMAN, but as indie films go, it’s smart and honest and affecting. It’s in New York and LA today, and will be rolling out across the country in the weeks ahead. It’s a trip well worth making.

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Aug. 20, 2004, 5:21 p.m. CST


    by Lance Rock

  • Aug. 20, 2004, 5:42 p.m. CST

    Captain Edward Trapp would say something about a different creek

    by SalvatoreGravano

    ...but Trapp's not here. Anyway, if it's comparable to Mystic River, then it really may be good.

  • Aug. 20, 2004, 5:49 p.m. CST

    So...empty talkback

    by MrCere

    Mori gives us a review of a film and nobody reads it. Damn readers. Thanks Mori, I will keep an eye open for this one, two if I can spare them.

  • Aug. 20, 2004, 5:54 p.m. CST

    Mori has been writing some really good reviews lately

    by Atticus Finch

    This movies sounds interesting. By the way, Mori, when is the next Jedi Council article!

  • Aug. 20, 2004, 6:33 p.m. CST

    Hey Moriarty, where is your Fantastic Four script review????

    by simongarth2001

  • Aug. 21, 2004, 12:32 a.m. CST

    Hmm. Looks like "Exorcist: The Beginning" is going the way of AV

    by truthseekr1488

  • Aug. 21, 2004, 5:11 a.m. CST

    You know what was wrong with the Patriot Act?

    by BurnHollywood

    No provisions against triple exclamation points where not necessary...Just a thought Harry: not EVERYBODY who thinks your layout sucks are haters...those of us who despise your forum format are now in the majority...

  • Aug. 21, 2004, 7:17 a.m. CST


    by ohthetrauma

    The trailer looks cool. "Bully: was great, so we'lll see.

  • Aug. 21, 2004, 7:20 a.m. CST

    Thanks Mori - I ALWAYS enjoy your reviews :)

    by Fish Tank

    And this is another one.

  • Aug. 21, 2004, 7:48 a.m. CST

    "Mean Creek" and "Woodsman"...

    by no-no

    ...were both screened this year at the director's fortnight in Cannes. Good enough movies with interesting stories and nuances but mainly better for the excellent acting of their entire cast .Same goes for "the death of Richard Nixon"(Sean Penn). Forget "Brown Bunny" already, it's old news and it's crap. Try and catch "Tarnation" instead, the best american independant movie I've seen in years!

  • Aug. 21, 2004, 11:37 p.m. CST

    I saw an interview with Rory for this movie

    by 007-11

    Kid's got personality. I'm probably going to have to see this one. Oh and is it just that I missed out, or has not one AICN regular reviewed "Garden State". I'm still blown away by how good it was. Zack(h?) Braff does a fantastic job of slowly crawling out from under his prescription drug haze, and Natalie Portman reminds us all why we first respected her as an actress.

  • Aug. 22, 2004, 3:33 a.m. CST

    The trailer..

    by ChildlkEmpress

    So, im not one of those super sappy women that cry during hallmark commercials, but the trailer for this film made me tear up. I agree that the trailer gave too much away. This is one of those movies, that I think i would really want to see, but might not necessarily have the will to sit through to the end.