Length: 89 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1, Anamorphically Enhanced
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 (stereo)
Special Features: Commentary by Director, DP, Editor and some cast
Estimated Street Price: $20, USD
Sam: “If we hurt him, we’d be just as bad as him.”
Rocky: “We need to hurt him without really hurting him.”
Released under the “Paramount Classics” label, Mean Creek is an inspired tale of revenge, responsibility and redemption. First-time director Jacob Aaron Estes has assembled an extraordinary cast of young actors, who deliver truly authentic performances of teens thrust into a dangerous and disturbing situation.
The story opens in typical fashion: little kid is beaten up by big kid. Little kid, big brother and friends plot a humiliating revenge against big kid. Then, something happens that the characters, and we, don’t expect. The bully turns out to be more a person to be pitied than feared. Physically strong, he is emotionally an inexperienced child, wanting desperately to fit in but not having the social skills to do so. The film becomes a true rarity, dispensing with the usual revenge plot and dealing more with moral choice and consequence in the real space of the teenage world and peer pressure.
Sam (Rory Culkin) is at the heart of the story - a good kid with apparently absent parents. He’s small for his age, but smart. His older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) acts as his mentor and protector.
George (Josh Peck) is the bully. He lacks social skills, is overweight, and has been kept back in school a few times due to a learning disability. He’s the perfect bully - a social misfit who is larger than his “peers.”
Rocky’s friend Marty (Scott Mechlowicz, who is a dead ringer for a young Brad Pitt) is the leader of a small group of friends. He has absent parents (his father committed suicide) and an abusive older brother. He is a charismatic group leader, but his baggage causes his temper to flare.
Sam’s almost-girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder) is a young voice of reason, who convinces an already uneasy Sam to call off a group plan to have their revenge against George. Sam talks to his older brother, Trevor, who seems to agree that the pitiable George should just be left alone. The strong voice of dissent is Marty, who reluctantly agrees to call off the plot.
Then, George displays his lack of social grace, setting in motion a series of events that spins wildly out of control. The reactions of the group are at the heart of the power of this film. Each reacts honestly, believably, in his own way. The older, stronger members of the group urge one course of action, while it is the younger kids who want to make a moral choice.
Watching these kid’s actions, the wise and experienced viewer can foresee what will happen. In figurative slow motion, you begin to shake your head and speak to the kids, telling them to think about what they are doing. It’s like a car, spinning out of control on an icy road - there’s nothing you can do but watch the events unfold. The performances sustain the reality onscreen to an impressive degree. Never have I seen a young ensemble cast perform so strongly and believably.
Mean Creek echoes similar films about bullying, most notably Tim Hunter’s The River’s Edge, and Larry Clark’s Bully. This film is at least the equal to the former. And it puts Bully to shame, proving that a film of this sort mustn’t be exploitative to pack a punch.
The film is anamorphically enhanced and delivered in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is strong, but displays the weaknesses of the original camera elements (the film was shot on Super-16). The budget film format actually enhances the edginess of the film.
Contrast is good, as is color saturation. Black levels are solid. Fine grain is sometimes visible, as on the original source material. Shot almost entirely with natural light, one shouldn’t expect perfect detail in the shadows. Shadow areas can be slightly muddy.
Sharpness and detail are good, considering the 16mm source, but the image is perhaps less sharp than you’d find with larger formats. There are no overt signs of edge enhancement or compression artifacts.
The soundtrack is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 and in stereo. The 5.1 track offers some directional cues and ambience across all channels. Frequency response is good. Dialog is always clear and intelligible. While there are no defects to speak of in the audio, the low budget origins do seem to result in a non-agressive mix.
Commentary by director Estes, editor Madeleine Gavin, director of photography Sharon Meir, actors Trevor Morgan, Ryan Kelley, Carly Schroeder, Josh Peck.
This is a wonderfully informative commentary, with participation from so many different sources. We find out about acting and improvisation, shooting challenges and continuity problems, camera effects, editing and more. The participants are very active and informative, not allowing much “dead” time to pass.
11 storyboard images are included here.
Previews of other films from the Paramount Classics label can be seen here. They are also semi-forced, before you can get to the main menu after disc insertion.
This is a fabulous film - brutal in its portrayal of the consequences of bullying and peer pressure. It is a fresh take on the subject, showing the bully as a real person, rather than the essence of unredeemable evil that is so often portrayed. Excellently written, directed, shot and acted, Paramount delivers a good transfer of this must-see film.