Mean Creek Review

Mean Creek revisits the teenage wastelands of Over the Edge and River’s Edge - their dead end small towns, sense of ennui and inarticulate anger, their ability to capture essential truths of teenage life. As such we arrive at a mood piece, a film to get absorbed in and truly connect with. Indeed, the audience reaction is very tightly controlled, with writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes, our Tim Hunter for the 21st century, seamlessly switching from allure to repulsion as we navigate his narrative.

Essentially we have a work - much like River’s Edge - which is almost a thriller. Sam, played by Rory Culkin, is getting bullied at school by George (Josh Peck), “a stupid fat kid [who’s] got problems”. Sam’s elder brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) learns of this and arranges, along with friends Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechlowitz), to enact some revenge. His scheme will involve taking George, under false pretences, on a trip down the local river and at some point humiliate him by forcing him to lose his clothes and walk home naked. Understandably, Mean Creek then uses this as a mere jumping board, with its accurate portrayal of the various kids at its centre meaning that not only will things not run as expected, but they’ll also force an opportunity to probe their lives.

Of course, much of this comes down to the performances – and they are all uniformly excellent – yet it is Estes’ handling of them which proves more arresting. His film never sees things as simply as the characters on screen do. Whereas they are inarticulate, he is always articulate; whereas they can be excessively cruel, his approach is more even-handed towards all the characters; whereas they never once appear to be in control, the precision with which he handles the proceedings is utterly perfect. Indeed, all the elements which could prove problematic to an audience, or perhaps unengaging, are made all the more palatable by being looked at from one remove. For whilst Mean Creek offers a window into the lives of its young protagonists, it never once apes their tendencies.

Yet isn’t also worth pointing out that Estes isn’t being superior. There is no sense of the sneer which has characterised indie filmmaking, especially during the nineties, but rather compassion. You get the feeling that Estes would change things if, yet is too hidebound by events to do otherwise. It is the realism of the piece which is integral to Mean Creek and herein lies its greatest strength. The characters are neither ciphers nor plot functions but genuine human beings. None of them can be pinned down or easily labelled and as such we are continually raising our guard. George isn’t simply a bully, Marty isn’t just the white trash violent type, and Sam isn’t innocent in all this – the roles keep changing and so do our preconceptions as to where this film is going.

It’s what Madeleine Gave, Mean Creek’s editor, describes in the commentary as “fooling with the balance” and it continues elsewhere. For all the misdirected nihilism, this is an incredibly alluring work. Estes is able to get both up close to his characters and their surroundings, and to highlight their otherworldly qualities. Indeed, it’s hard not to think of the superficially similar George Washington though that film’s 35mm ‘scope photography has been downgraded to a slightly harsher, though no less enticing Super 16 approach which refuses to soften the edges. Moreover, whereas David Gordon Green, the director of George Washington, made a work in which the look of the film proved ultimately more memorable than its narrative, Estes never loses sight of the principle focus. Rather the overall tone is simply a means of allowing us to get further acquainted with these characters; when Mean Creek enters into lulls, they are not included simply as a means of creating pretty pictures, or to get further mileage from tomandandy’s ambient score (a stark contrast to their more aggressive Killing Zoe-style efforts), but to bewitch us deeper into its situation.

Of course, with all these rising tensions the film needs a dramatic payoff, and it’s arguable that Estes provides one a little too soon. Needless to say, it is difficult to discuss Mean Creek’s finale without divulging what has come beforehand and as such I’ll have to speak in generations. Put simply, the peak arrives too early and Estes is never quite sure how to maintain the momentum in the final stages. Tellingly, during the interview which appears on this disc, he notes that a number of different alternatives were considered at various draft stages, some more successful than others. And whilst Mean Creek’s final act as it stands is by no means a step in the wrong direction, it does fail to maintain the high standards its first hour has set up. Indeed, it’s the only flaw, but still prevents it from genuinely competing with the likes of Over the Edge and River’s Edge.

The Disc

Mean Creek comes to the UK DVD market as a Region 0 release courtesy of Tartan. Overall, they’ve issued the film on a fine disc, with a pleasing presentation and a nice set of extras. Starting with the former, we get an anamorphic transfer (at a ratio of 1.78:1) of a mostly clean print. Bearing in mind that Mean Creek was shot on Super 16, the occasional presence of grain is to be expected, but then the level of clarity throughout is still quite astonishing.

As for the soundtrack, the film comes with its original Dolby DD2.0 mix as well as the option of either DD5.1 or DTS. What’s especially pleasing about these latter mixes is the manner in which don’t take liberties with the original, but rather build on its intentions. Thus the ambience of the score becomes all the more enveloping and the film just that little bit more alluring, which of course is the point. In all three cases there are no technical faults to speak of other than those found in the original materials (the dialogue at times is difficult to pick up, though no doubt the mumbling speech patterns are intentional).

The extras consist of the usual trailer and promos for other Tartan releases, plus a cast and crew commentary, lengthy interview with Estes and a glimpse at some of his storyboards. The first is an interesting piece but more than a little ragged. On the one hand we have Estes, Gave and cinematographer Sharon Meir treating the film with the utmost seriousness, and on the other we have the various actors flitting between far too loud or more than a little quiet. Certainly, the sheer number of participants allows for a full and wide-ranging discussion, but you can’t help but feel it would have been better off separated into two tracks.

As such Estes’ interview is perhaps more rewarding. 27 minutes he is able to cover most bases without distraction or interruption. Moreover, he’s an articulate speaker, and a considered one at that, which means that pretty much everything he has to say is worth a listen. That said, fans of the film will perhaps find his discussion of deleted and alternative scenes the most interesting, though sadly none of these on the disc. In their place we find amongst the storyboards a sketch for a scene which was to have featured William Mapother, the only interesting addition to an otherwise disappointing extra.

Unlike the main feature, none of the extras come with optional subtitles, English or otherwise.

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