There's a course at independent film schools these days called "Ominous Portent 101." Teaching aspiring filmmakers how to mix a brooding indierock soundtrack with darkly languid cinematography, the class focuses on creating films with an aura of cruel foreboding and oncoming tragedy. Though it's too new to be on this year's syllabus, Jacob Aaron Estes' Mean Creek will most certainly be incorporated into the curriculum next year, as a textbook example of those very ideas in practice.
Mean Creek is one of those somber rite-of-passage movies so aware of its oncoming tragic turn of events that it's a little painful; tragic turns become far less tragic when the audience knows to expect them from the opening credits. The film opens with Sam (played by Culkin kid #0037, Rory) getting the shit kicked out of him by the school bully, George (Josh Peck). In response, Sam's older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) and his troubled friend Martini (Scott Mechlowicz) hatch a plan: they will invite George to a fake birthday party for Sam, which will take place in a boat out on the creek. Under the guise of spirited outdoor camaraderie, they will float George into the wilderness, then strip him of all his clothes and leave him naked and alone, to get back home by any means necessary.
Unfortunately, things get complicated when George winds up being a surprisingly sweet and intelligent person. Suddenly, the group doesn't want to play their cruel joke anymore. But Martini is troubled and persistent, and his insistence on justice results in a fiasco that is almost shockingly not shocking.
Estes treats his lame plot with such over-the-top somber reverence it's impossible to take it seriously--which is too bad, because Mean Creek contains some remarkable elements that belong in a better movie. Most importantly, the bully George is a truly complex and fascinating character--an almost-likeable guy who constantly undermines himself with his inability to shut up. Estes has created a sadly funny high school outcast who's at once familiar and utterly original--unfortunately, he's also a character who deserves a lot more than Mean Creek has to offer.