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Mean Creek

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 Jan
Mean Creek
from Film Forum, 09/16/04

Mean Creek, the directorial debut of Jacob Aaron Estes, is playing in limited release around the country, earning rave reviews. Among religious press critics, the film is getting some of the highest raves of the year.

The film is an R-rated—but powerfully honest and realistic—portrayal of troubled teenagers from Estacada, Oregon, who embark on a journey along the Lewis River that becomes a nightmare. Young Sam (Rory Culkin of Signs) gets bullied on the playground by an angry, alienated oaf named George (Josh Peck), an act of typical playground violence that sets in motion a chain of events that exposes just how badly these kids need loving parents and admirable role models. When Sam tells his big brother Rocky (The Rookie) about the bullying, Rocky tells his buddies, and they plan a vengeful prank. Luring George onto a boat under the guise of a "birthday party" for Sam, they plan to throw the guy into the river and make him swim to shore. But before they ever get that opportunity, something goes very wrong, something that tests each participant's conscience.

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. The way that these kids' misbehavior and cruel vocabulary 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. In a summer of shallowness and sensationalism, Mean Creek is a profound and lasting piece of work.

I've written more about the film at Looking Closer. My interview with the director will appear in the next issue of Paste Magazine.

Stef Loy (The Matthews House Project) joins the chorus of raves, describing how "the story turns from a simple revenge plot to a tragically serious morality play. Ethical themes speak so loudly to us here that we can scarcely keep up with the exquisite on-screen cinematography. Estes pulls off the impossible in creating movie magic: he challenges us to think, and we consider all the characters and their actions to such a degree that we forget we are watching a movie. And once we have burrowed into the heart of all these young and stupid characters, once we have grappled with their consequences, we are racked by their consciences and forced to come to terms with a need for reconciliation."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Mean Creek is basically a morality tale which examines not only the physical and psychological consequences of the actions involved, but the emotional residue they leave on the human soul. The film raises questions about conscience and each individual's inescapable duty to face his sins. A sense of divine judgment hangs over the proceedings, with the young players wrestling with guilt as they ponder the possibility of absolution. One even asks, 'Can we be forgiven?' The film ends on a somber but repentantly redemptive note."

Brett McCracken (Relevant) writes, "What is immediately striking about Mean Creek is the talent with which the little-known, underage actors carry the heavy depths of their characters. Each of their performances easily stands among the best of the year so far. Mean Creek is like Mean Girls without the girls or the feel-good ending (or beginning, or middle). Both are films about just how cruel kids can be, and each explores the dog-eat-dog world of adolescent social-survival. But while Girls treated the matter as comic satire, Creek sees it as a troubling cultural phenomenon representing human nature at its worst."

Mainstream critics are taking notice and praising Estes for this impressive debut.

from Film Forum, 09/30/04

My interview with Jacob Aaron Estes, the director of one of this year's most memorable and powerful films, is now available in the latest of issue of Paste Magazine. The article explores the way that the young characters respond to their lack of good role models and the absence of any relationship with God. Estes talks about why this R-rated film might be worthwhile for parents to see with their teenagers.

from Film Forum, 10/07/04

Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Jacob Aaron Estes' directorial debut is a dark parable about anger, revenge, and responsibility. Although the writer/director wrote the film's script several years ago, it burns with disarming war-time relevance. In fact, it's one of 2004's most richly rewarding movies."