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Mean Creek | Review

The Policy of Youth

Best film debut of the year shows how growing up is a hard thing to do.

If Gus Van Sant’s (Elephant), a half-examined exploration of the youth and violence in America seemed only to graze the surface, then this edgy, brutally honest contemporary half Lord of the Flies meets part Stand By Me indie feature digs deep into the consciousness of youth with a constantly fertile visual dialogue that demonstrates the flux of pressures of adult decision-making in an adolescents’ world.

As found in all elementary and high-school microcosms, this is the not so uncommon tale of the boy (Rory Culkin – Signs) who gets picked on by a larger “fat-kid”, but just so happens to have a bigger brother to help with the payback. Weaving the perfect revenge, the prank – in the form of an innocent rafting experience slowly gets shelved when the enemy is disarmed, revealing weak and misunderstood. Of course by then, those with a lack of life-experience and perhaps an even lower self-esteem take action, and the film leaves the childsplay intro for a disastrous Deliverance cessation. While the narrative focal point is rather simple and exploitive, it is the film’s subtext and the magnetic ensemble of characterizations that demonstrate the difficult-to-understand nature of peer-pressure, low self-esteem and isolated reactions within a shared traumatic experience.

Supplied with the year’s best ensemble performance, Mean Creek is everything opposite of what Larry Clark’s pretentious Bully was. This is an intelligent, courageous script that handles its disturbing coming-of age tale with an appropriated, caring hand. In a well-disguised character-study and with a deliberately clear avoidance of an adult p.o.v, first-time filmmaker Jacob Aaron Estes succeeds in relating the emotional centers of his characters, thus avoiding the typically drawn caricatured sketches of the growing-up experience. The most poignant moment of the film is found in the film’s third act, which brilliantly “stays around” in the end, interested in not the lessons learned in the aftermath but in how they live their experience and how they force themselves to make moral judgment calls. Strong scenes build this film, from the little comedic plausible moments to a doubled viewing of one sequence that sees the bully address his camcorder – the film’s second look of what is left on the tape explores the potential insecurity of youth and addresses that those who act as predators to the weak are often victims themselves. The edgy, grainy look of the film brushes the narrative with a certain sense of suspense, but it adds a degree of reality in the images. Perhaps, Estes’ major accomplishment with limited funds is how he brings out the collective vulnerability in his characters – it shows that the first-time director got the best out his young performers.

While Mean Creek strongly defines itself as a dark, it is nonetheless recommended viewing material for pre-adolescent future high-schoolers but is also required documentation for parents, teachers and anyone else who has forgotten what it is to grow up in such a hostile, life-defining and affecting period of one’s life.

Rating 4 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist and critic at (founded in 2000). Eric is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson's This Teacher (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022 he served as a New Flesh Comp for Best First Feature at the 2022 Fantasia Intl. Film Festival. Current top films for 2022 include Tár (Todd Field), All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen), Aftersun (Charlotte Wells).

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