© 2004 Paramount Classics.
I heard about it from a meme, and I stayed with it because it hits the spot. That is my relationship to the 2004 indie film directed by newcomer Jacob Aaron Estes, Mean Creek.
What most shockingly stands out for viewers, specifically ones who grew up on the Nickelodeon series Drake & Josh as kids, is the presence of Josh Peck, who serves as the emotional center of the story. He looks just like the titular Josh of fame, but in this film which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival almost synchronously to the airing of the show, he is hostile, aggressive, and vulgar. This curse-filled tirade is the meme that is single handedly responsible for any lasting impact of this film today. And that’s a damn shame because this film is quite excellent.
The story of a group of kids performing a prank on George (Peck) after he beat up the younger brother (Rory Culkin) of one of the kids that goes horribly wrong seems like an invitation for campy, syrupy, cheap melodrama. After School Special 101: revenge is bad and don’t do to others and what you wouldn’t want others to do to you. Trust me, this movie is punishing to both the characters and the audience. The revenge prank ends when George is involuntarily pushed overboard and is killed via head collision. While sure, the coda of the film enforces that message, you experience a visceral reaction to the cause and effect as a result of the film’s dynamic character work.
Once the main story arc of the prank orchestrated by Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), Rocky (Trevor Morgan), and Clyde (Ryan Kelley), which involves leaving George naked and left alone on the water, I at least found myself continuously on edge. Estes plays with conscious thought and primal emotions. Consciously, you know that this prank is cruel, but emotionally, you talk yourself into thinking that George deserves something coming to him. His troubled nature works on both sides of the coin. In morality tales such as this, the gray line of proper justice is always in question and often pushed to the limit. When dealing with junior high schoolers and high schoolers, the punishing effect when the wrong decisions are made only hits harder.
A great example of the character work in Mean Creek is Clyde’s disdain when homophobic remarks are made at the expense of him, as he is the son of a gay couple, even when they come from his friend, Marty. So when George, trying to fit in with the group, refers to Clyde as a “faggot”, it creates dramatic tension between Clyde and George. You can only imagine how he would feel about a non-friend name calling him with that word. But then again, George just doesn’t know any better. And as an aside, there is great nuance in showing a young adult express vulnerability in being called such a thing for a film with such a hard edge in 2004.
Mean Creek is effective as a film engaging with the desires and consequences of hyper-masculinity. On the first watch, which occurred when I was about 15 I might add, (you know, what most 15 year olds were doing) I was puzzled by how often the boys were physically pushing each other, notably in the first twenty minutes or so. It seemed like overdirection, but looking at it now, it builds up to the idea that their instinctual toxic aggression led them down this path. Marty is constantly reinforcing to Rocky that he can’t let George walk away scot free after beating up his brother when Rocky starts to grow weary of the executing the prank. It’s ambiguous whether George’s toxic masculinity is true to him by nature or whether it’s a cover up for his insecurities, but either way, his aggression clashes with the internal rage of Marty and leads to his demise on the boat. The damning sign of the toxic masculinity of Marty and Rocky, “who personally have nothing against George, want to go ahead (with the prank); they’re using a crude interpretation of justice to mask their own needs” writes Roger Ebert. When Rocky’s brother, Sam, gets to know George more, morphs his vengeance into empathy, and Sam is the one who actually was affected by George’s actions. The way I as a viewer shifted my sympathies with George is a credit to Josh Peck’s brilliant performance, who somehow managed to make me forget he was the lovable, goofy kid on Nickelodeon.
Ebert’s review is quite celebratory, more than expected solely based on his middling three star rating. I thought I’d be the one defending this film’s honor at all times, but I couldn’t help but be taken aback by Ebert’s comment here:
“Mean Creek makes us realize how many films, not just those about teenagers but particularly the one-dimensional revenge-driven adult dramas, think the defeat of the villain solves everything. Such films have a simplistic playground morality: The bully is bad, we will destroy him, and our problems will be over. They don’t pause to consider the effects of revenge — not on the bully, but on themselves.”
If Estes had the courage to write and direct a film that sets up and executes the perfect bully revenge and relishes in the success of it all a la Tarantino, then hats off to him. This is when I wonder if Ebert, god love him, occasionally viewed films too literally. Every morality tale that I’ve seen flirts with the consequences of a scheme like this, even if the story arc is closely tied to the perspective of the characters rather than an omnipresent narrator. I highly recommend that everyone see Mean Creek, but not because it’s unique in delving into the consequences of your actions. The point I imagined he’d agree with, and maybe was trying to convey all along, was that Mean Creek is more unapologetic with its psychological angst than its peers.
As I previously mentioned, I watched this when I was fifteen and a freshman in high school. Based on the Vine (R.I.P) of Josh Peck’s passionate vulgar filled insult barrage at these people that always gave me a great laugh, I just had to know what this movie was and how it got to this point of dramatic intensity. Sure enough, the film worked on me so well that I was doing anything but laughing by the time this pivotal scene occurred.