Six kids pile into a boat on a lazy northern Oregon river for a summer day's outing in Mean Creek (which opens Friday, Aug. 27, at Harvard Exit), and you know from the outset which one of them is going to die. Three are about 15, three in eighth grade. They don't belong together, not in the same clique, not in the same clan, and certainly not in the same rowboat borrowed without permission in a movie where adults and parents are almost entirely absent. For a day, these six turn feral, surrendering to their worst impulses. With the cutting clarity of a glacier-fed river, Creek puts us in the minds of normal, implacable kids pushed over the edge by constant teasing, taunting, and bullying. If anything, Creek is perhaps too explicitly explanatory about what causes teen pariahs to lug bags full of weaponry to the schoolyard, yet not a shot is fired here. The movie is quieter, and better, than just about anything I've seen on the subject of youthful cruelty—perhaps because it makes those youths morally accountable for the tragedy that binds them. The death, which comes an hour into the film, is inevitable. The 30-minute aftermath is not.
Pudgy rageaholic George (Josh Peck) looks like he needs Ritalin just to brush his teeth in the morning. Held back at middle school, dwarfing his classmates, this hyperactive outsider probably needs about a thousand other pills to get through the school day. He's like that poor Star Wars light-saber kid in the famous Web clip, Ghyslain Raza, a self-absorbed dork extraordinaire. He stays by himself, plays by himself, and totes his precious video camera everywhere with the explanation, "I'm making a documentary of things." Things—both inside and outside his head—aren't very clear to volatile George and those who shun him, like bantamweight classmate Sam (Rory Culkin), who touches George's camera and gets soundly beaten for his curiosity.
The schoolyard beating demands revenge, decides Sam's older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), who enlists his two pals, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley), for some payback down by the river in the form of a bogus rowboat birthday party for Sam. Also invited along is Sam's puppy-love girlfriend, Millie (Carly Schroeder), the type of sensible girl who outlines conversation points in purple ink the night before an ice-cream date. She's not in on the plot against hapless George, who actually buys Sam a present for the fake occasion. He's so pathetically eager to please, so desperate to ingratiate himself with the older kids, that Sam soon has qualms about the revenge scheme. "He's a stupid fat kid. He's got problems," Sam correctly diagnoses. But the river only runs one way, and they've already cast off from shore.
Cigarettes, beer, Truth or Dare—ah, those perennials of youthful rebellion. For a while, Creek meanders like a pubescent Deliverance until the sniping and backbiting erupt. Previously, on dry land, writer- director Jacob Aaron Estes has sketched enough underlying motivation—Marty's bullying by his older brother; Clyde's shame over his gay dad; only-child George's likely schizophrenia—to suggest why things go fatally awry. Estes is frank about his influences (River's Edge, Stand by Me), and the theme of innocent kids confronting a corpse before they can grow into adulthood isn't exactly novel. Again, the river must follow its course. But Estes avoids the Top-40 mawkishness of Stephen King and Rob Reiner in his depiction of juveniles who are, in their way, much more fundamentally decent than Crispin Glover and his Edge crowd. Even when they behave their worst, they behave better than we—or their wayward parents—should have any reason to expect.
Unlike Lord of the Flies, the reversion to a natural state isn't finally such a terrible thing. Creek succeeds by naturalistically treating cruelty and conscience as parts of the same normal adolescent organism. Tragedy results because, well, kids will be kids. But they're utterly convincing kids, at their best and their worst. There's a great moment where protective Rocky counsels timid Sam, who, by way of gratitude, offers his big brother some gum from his own mouth. Rocky takes it and chews it without hesitating, and such instinctive, unthinking gestures distinguish the entire film. A touch, a glance, a shove, or an insult—the consequences can just as easily be fatal or friendly. It's a big lesson for the five survivors to learn, and something that can be taught, Creek suggests, only on vacation and far from the classroom.