Directed by Jacob Aaron Estes, starring Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck and Carly Schroeder.
Many films portray adolescence, but it is a rare one that actually captures it. The feeling of wanting to fit in, but be different; looking up to some people and down on others; knowing about things, but not understanding them; walking a tightrope between two worlds, unsure of which one you want to fall into when you do.
So when a film comes along that matches the old films of nostalgia, sadness, fear or warmth that play inside your head, you have to sit back in admiration - and in this case then take a sharp intake of breath when you remind yourself that this is writer-director Estes' feature debut.
In a picture postcard town in Oregon, Sam (Culkin) has just found himself on the receiving end of another beating from school bully George (Peck). Wanting some sort of payback, but not of the violent kind, Sam tells his older brother Rocky (Morgan) what has happened. Knowing of George, Rocky's two friends, hardman Marty (Mechlowicz) and the sensitive Clyde (Kelley), agree that something must be done and so the four concoct a scheme to teach George a lesson.
Thinking he's been invited to Sam's birthday, George, who has a learning disorder, readily agrees to Rocky's invite to a boat trip, involving the brothers, Marty, Clyde and Sam's unsuspecting sweetheart Millie (Schroeder). George even brings along a present for his new best friend - the first of many signs that the other boys and Millie really don't know very much about him. As the day progresses, awkwardness gives way to fun and a decision that the plan to humiliate George should be called off. But it's only a matter of time before tempers become frayed.
Sometimes a film comes along that gets so many things right - tone, pace, emotional pitch, themes - that you wonder how so many can get so much wrong. In just 89 minutes, Estes draws characters so vivid that you feel you've either known them for a long time or can see them in people who are/were part of your own life. Their story is a morality tale, with a lesson that you're never too old or smart to learn.
Here is an example of just how great an ensemble piece can be when the casting is perfect and the energy moves between the 'stars' in the unfussiest way possible. There's no grandstanding in 'Mean Creek', just six young actors helping each other up their game. They're all superb in their own way and while it's unfair to single anyone out, Peck's devastating performance as George and heartthrob-in-waiting Mechlowicz's portrayal of a better-looking and more charismatic bully don't come along too often.
While films featuring groups of teens are always destined to receive either the 'where are they now?' or 'before they were famous' treatment some years down the line, we'd all be a little poorer if we don't see more of these six in the future. But whatever acting paths they travel in life, they can take them in the knowledge that what they've achieved here will be difficult to surpass.