A first time directorial effort from Jacob Aaron Estes, "Mean Creek" (2004) is a refreshingly candid depiction of American youth culture.
The tension in this film is nearly intolerable.
This story gets in the mind of pre-teens and teenagers better than countless Hollywood "teen" movies.
From the very first scene, the universal hook of childhood bullying will resonate.
The film opens with video camera footage shot by George (Josh Peck), the instigator of the impending disaster.
The protagonist Sam (Rory Culkin, baring resemblance to his older brother) touches the video camera only to suffer quite a pounding from its owner.
This is presumably one in a long sequence of similar beatings.
Sam's "girlfriend" Millie (Carly Schroeder) asks him "If you could snap your fingers right now and he would drop dead in his tracks, would you do it?"
Sam is uncomfortably quiet.
Sam informs his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan), who's been beating him up at school.
Rocky and his friends, tough-guy Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and softie Clyde (Ryan Kelley) vow to help give the bully what's coming to him.
Under the guise of a birthday party for Sam, the older boys invite George on a canoe trip.
The kids plan to humiliate him, strip him naked and abandon him.
But over the course of the trip George reveals a deeper character than that of a simple bully.
He is boastful and desperate, concocting lies and dishing out insults to overcompensate for his extreme loneliness.
Even though the characters develop second thoughts about getting revenge, Marty still wants to go through with the prank.
Of course, something goes horribly wrong and each kid must deal with the consequences.
The film is uniquely sympathetic to all characters.
These kids all suffer from various problems at home and the emotional damage that comes with it.
Marty struggles with guilt after his father committed suicide.
The sensitive Clyde is an easy target with two gay fathers.
In particular, George is much more character than caricature.
He is the way he is for a reason and the film gives us some hints.
He narrates scenes in his room and envisages someone discovering the footage someday and deeming it valuable.
Found footage from the video camera serves as a window into George's mind.
The video camera becomes something of a character itself.
The kids must look for it in the river to secure evidence of the crime.
Two of the film's most powerful moments come without words.
Acting, writing and direction fuse together to create some compelling moments.
Estes finds some beautiful framing in the woods and on the river.
He pays special attention to the position of the kids on screen to convey meaning.
This deems other moments of uneven camera work in the film forgivable.
While nearly hopelessly bleak, "Mean Creek" is a small-time indie that is brutally honest and hard to forget.
Tom Helberg is a junior film studies major. Reach him email@example.com.