MEAN CREEK, set in a woodsy suburban area near Portland, Oregon, was partly filmed on stretches of the nearby Clackamas River and on the Lewis River in neighboring Washington. While not an actual geographical location, the title brook refers metaphorically to the casually watered streams of nastiness that can reach flood tide when channeled by bullying and its victims fantasies of revenge.
Slight in stature and quiet, high school student ‘Sam’ (Rory Culkin) is battered by fat, obnoxious bully ‘George’ (Josh Peck). Protective older brother ‘Rocky’ (Trevor Morgan) and buddies plot a non-violent but humiliating revenge. Things get out of hand—saying more spoils it. While this perfectly cast and performed 2004 drama isn’t a happy camping trip, it’s one well worth tagging along on for the assured way writer & director Jacob Estes cuts open a fresh vein in the coming-of-age (badly) body of works.
The decent and offended Sam and Rocky have mixed plotting company in the sly, over-eager ‘Marty’ (Scott Mechlowicz), badgered and tentative ‘Clyde’ (Ryan Kelley) and Sam’s wistful sweetheart ‘Millie’ (Carly Schroeder). Marty’s roughneck brother ‘Kile’ (Branden Williams) factors in.
The cast excel—each and every one, with the miserable (in all ways) George a real litmus test to decency, justice and karma. All are allowed depth and shading, none of them drawn as simple cyphers or cut-outs—how they appear and act and what they say and do looks genuine and feels emotionally real and dramatically true. Watching, tensed, you’re not sure exactly where and how it’s going to go.
The remarkably astute casting was done by Matthew Lessall; for the quietly effective music scoring you can thank “tomandandy”. Along with the summery river footage, regional Oregon locales contributing to the mood include the Portland satellite towns of Troutdale, Sandy and Estacada. Done on a shoestring $500,000, it rippled the festival circuit, garnered plaudits, but saw a very limited release, grossing a mere $803,000. Excellent film deserves a wide audience.