DIR: JACOB ESTES
Bullying is not just an individual event or character in Mean Creek: it is a culture, a language, a way of life. Everyone is a pussy or an asshole or a loser or a creep, at least potentially, and everyone has to avoid or pre-empt the accusation somehow. But this horrible world looks beautiful. The action takes place on a sunlit stretch of water on the Oregon-Washington border; it could be shot by Terrence Mallick or David Gordon Green.
Pic’s early moments are steeped in nostalgia: walks home from school with older brothers; warm, seemingly endless spring afternoons...a specific kind of iconic-suburban childhood, steeped in the vestiges of Norman Rockwell and Mark Twain, and ripe for rupturing...
On the river, Estes, working with the cinematographer Sharone Meir, exhibits an acute attention to natural landscape, using it as a contrapuntal background to the physical and emotional horrors about to take place.
But as Estes builds toward inevitable crisis and surprising consequence, suspending the tension with handsomely impressionistic handheld cinematography (much of it shot with available light by Sharone Meir on the water near the Oregon/Washington border), the filmmaker simultaneously unleashes his most unnerving psychological weapon: George is a bully, but he’s also a lonely, sensitive kid who keeps a poetic video diary.
In the film's kinetic opening scenes, Sharone Meir's masterful cinematography lingers over budding adolescent bodies with a nervy energy that can't help but recall the sex-saturated oeuvre of Larry Clark. Thankfully, Estes eschews the photographer-turned-director's brittle misanthropy and penchant for sensationalism in favor of a more delicate take on the cruelty and heightened emotions of adolescence.
...the glimpses of shore birds and forest animals give the movie a haunting, quiet beauty. The film's insight -- powerfully articulated even if it is not especially original -- is that modern adolescence is not far from the harsh, cruel state of nature. It takes only a few bad decisions or unhappy accidents to reveal the savagery that lurks behind smooth, civilized young faces.
Its close spaces—cars, small rooms, the boat—are vividly realized in the movie’s intimate framings, in the crispness of its ordinary details and sounds, all of which serve to agitate the tensions eddying just below the surface. That all gives Mean Creek its raw, intriguing volatility...
***(3 stars) "Mean Creek" opens with a schoolyard bully picking on a smaller kid, develops into a story of revenge, and then deepens into the surprisingly complex story of young teenagers trying to do the right thing. It could have been simple-minded and predictable, but it becomes a rare film about moral choices, about the difficulty of standing up against pressure from your crowd.