One of the best things you can say about a first time director is that his first time feature plays like an effort from a well-established filmmaker. With Jacob Estes the good thing is that it is not the only thing you can say about “Mean Creek”. It might be odd to also rave about the casting, but in this case Estes and his team did an admirable job in bringing together a team of youthful actors who carry the weight of a fairly weighty movie.
Most notable here is that adults play a significantly small role in the film and even at that they do not appear until the third reel. That means the set-up and the heady aspects of the story have to be driven by a team of youths and pre-teens who succeed in doing just that. Rory Culkin is given top billing but the real stars are Trevor Morgan as the older brother Rocky, and Scott Mechlowicz, as Rocky’s friend Marty. Once the plot kicks into gear these two are the motivating characters, with Morgan giving a breezily realistic performance and Mechlowicz displaying mannerisms and a voice strongly resembling Brad Pitt.
The film begins with Sam (Culkin) confiding to his older brother Rocky that he has been having trouble with the school bully. Rocky mentions this to his friends, and Sam discusses what can be done about the situation with his friend Millie. After some time the kids conceive a plan where they will teach the bully, George, a lesson that will for once put an end to his tormenting practices. The group will get together for a boat trip to celebrate Sam’s birthday, and George gets invited ostensibly to patch the rift between himself and Sam, except Marty and Rocky plan on dumping the rogue in the wilderness to fend for himself.
As the excursion gets underway George reveals aspects about himself that causes Sam and Millie to rethink their reprisal scenario and they tell the others they want to suspend the plan. Marty resists this change of heart, and after they are under way down river an accident occurs that causes the entire group to be confronted with some very difficult decisions, both while on the river and later that week.
From the beginning it is noticeable that this group of young actors is a gifted crowd, and that works in Estes’ favor, as the first reel is devoted to setting up character and initial plot points. There are early stretches that may drag slightly but the skills of the young players are sufficient to keep interest and hold the attention of the audience before the action gets underway. Estes spent much of the first portion of the movie shooting the scenes in hand-held mode and this gets distracting, but not enough to pull you out of the developments. It works better for the scenes on the water so that you get drawn in to the group’s realm and you begin to feel the stress along with them.
The plot to “Mean Creek” is one that defies being too surprising, but even if you can assume the impending action the cast is reason enough to stay on board. For a first time director to provoke such impressive performances from a young cast is a good sign.