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Roughly one year ago in January, Mean Creek premiered at the distinguished Sundance Film Festival. From there it would make its way to the Cannes Film Festival, and to other festivals in London, New York City, and Los Angeles. Eventually it was released in August of 2004 in theaters in America. At its peak it was shown on a little over 40 screens, and earned just above its $500,000 budget at the box office. In Jacob Aaron Estes second directing effort the film maker was nominated with two Independent Spirit Awards for Mean Creek, winning the Special Distinction Award for the ensemble cast. Despite not having a huge audience, Paramount has released a single disc edition of this independent film, which transcends the typical teen-drama genre film into something altogether more meaningful.

Mean Creek
Film
The sublime nature of Mean Creek is in the simplicity of the story: a conflict between schoolmates, a bully and his prey. George (Josh Peck) is a bully who gets into a fight with his middle school classmate Sam (Rory Culkin, best knowsn for his work in Signs) over a trivial incident. To make matters worse, Sam's girlfriend Millie was aware of the fight, which made the situation all the more embarrassing. With both his pride and face reeling from the beating, Sam talks to his older brother Rocky about what happened. In a pseudo game of telephone Rocky tells his friends Marty and Clyde about the incident, who collectively decide that the best course of action to stick up for Sam, would be to get even with George. Together they scheme a plan to humiliate George, igniting the proverbial flame of revenge.

After telling George that it was Sam's birthday (with the ever innocent Millie unaware of any wrong doings going on), the group of adolescents set out to go on a casual boat ride. At this point the protagonists and antagonist seem to be clearly established; this is where director Estes turns the tables on the audience and the characters. When Sam and his friends go to pick up George, this seemingly reprehensible monster gives Sam a birthday present, a sweet gesture to apologize for his actions. Instead of driving towards sweet revenge, the plot sets up a potentially regrettable situation for the group of teens. Once Millie (played by the very talented Carly Schroeder) figures out the malicious plan that has been set in motion, she convinces Sam to halt the proceedings and to simply have a fun day out with George. Word passes along to Rocky and his friends to leave George alone, but the situation is still tense.

The genius of Josh Peck’s performance of George is that he makes his character very likeable at times, and is still able to quickly shift the audience and other characters opinion of him to that of disgust in a matter of an instant. During a game of truth and dare George manages to press the buttons of loose-cannon Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) which causes an accident to occur on the boat. The film takes another drastic turn here in which the characters are thrown into a dilemma where they must face the consequences of the choices they made which led to their situation. Some of the youths look to make very adult decisions, while others look to run from responsibility.

Mean Creek
Adolescence is filled with awkward moments and a tirade of emotions that seem to continuously stack up higher and higher. Mean Creek does not get lost in the midst of countless other youth centered dramas because of its ability to effectively draw on human emotions and recollections. Bullies have been presented in countless films as metaphors for mythological beasts with no depth beyond their cartoonish portrayals. George is an adolescent with real problems that many can relate to. Underneath his sometimes hurtful demeanor is a person with feelings that only seeks acceptance. This is clearly seen by how he tries to win over Sam with a gift, and how he tries to smoke with Marty to act like one of the older kids. We’ve all done things to try and fit in with crowds at times, and George is no exception.

Decision making is the other motif that is clearly at the heart of Mean Creek; this of course leads to cause and effect, and reaction and response. The story is smothered in this theme, with some instances being larger than others. Clyde (Ryan Kelley) is made fun of by Marty because he decides he doesn't want to smoke pot. Sam has to be convinced to seek revenge against George. Millie has to get Sam to call off the plan. Rocky (played by Trevor Morgan, who you may recognize from The Patriot) has to inform Marty about their decision in responding to the accident. All of these are decisions that characters make in which they must deal with the consequences of their actions. Again, this is something that anyone has dealt with growing up, and it is situations like theirs that shape adolescents into the adults they become. Seeing how the characters respond to results of the wrong decisions they’ve made is what puts Mean Creek over the top. Ironically, it is the youngest characters, Sam and Millie, which ultimately make the most adult decisions.

At the end of the day, the praise for Mean Creek should rest with director Jacob Aaron Estes. His ability to direct youth actors is on the level with Mr. Speilberg’s talent. He brilliantly uses the themes and motifs of the film to give an in-depth look at the characters, without blatantly doing so. The acting talent he and Rory Culkin (who had a hand in the casting) assembled for this project is staggering. Every one of these unknown actors have careers that you should keep an eye on; particularly Ms. Schroeder has unlimited potential, and Scott Mechlowicz will immediately remind you of a young Brad Pitt. All the accolades and compliments that Estes gets on Mean Creek you will find are undeniably appropriate.

Mean Creek
Video
Enhanced for 16:9 televisions, the video quality wavers from start to finish. If I were to look at the first fifteen minutes of Mean Creek's picture caliber I would be raving about how fluid the colors are and how crisp the images look. As time goes on however, the video experiences several deficiencies starting with artifacts. Being shot on a Super-16 mm in the middle of a lake on a low budget, artifacts should be expected. They pop up fairly regularly but don’t act as much of a distraction. In darker lit scenes the image sometimes is sterling and at other times is soft with noise present. This could possibly be attributed to the type of lighting used outdoors opposed to ones used indoors, but issue remains. Finally, there was one split second of pixellation that occurred sometime in the last ten minutes of the film. Even though the problem isn’t distracting or even that noticeable, pixellation is as close to inexcusable as things go in DVD releases; because again this is an independent film with a tiny budget, we’ll let it slide this time.

For those that are curious, there are no issues of haloing from edge enhancement in Mean Creek whatsoever. When the aforementioned technical issues are dormant, the picture quality is way above average. The colors are presented gloriously, and they look as good as anything else you’ve seen on your system. I’m sad to say that this occurrence is not in the majority, making the overall video quality very average.

Audio
Those of you who decide to check out Mean Creek will be offered various ways to listen to the film: a 5.1 Dolby Digital track and a 2.0 stereo track, both in English. Sound is not by any stretch an important ingredient in this film, but the quality is above average nonetheless. The music in the soundtrack is always clear and never overbearing. While part of the intensity of some of the scenes draws upon awkward silences, the surround effects do come into play when the kids are on the river by having sounds of wind and insects occasionally sneaking into the mix, creating a sometimes submerssive atmosphere. There was one instance where the sound popped towards the end of the film, but it's nothing that would detract from the cinematic experience. Overall the audio quality is good enough to serve its purpose, but nothing to gleam about.

Mean Creek
Extras
As far as supplemental material goes for Mean Creek, this release comes up fairly short. A group commentary is the main extra featuring members of the cast and crew of the production. Graciously this is not 85 minutes of gushing about how great their movie is. This charming commentary offers plenty of anecdotes on the process of filming the picture - serving up several laughs for the audience; actor Josh Peck is particularly funny throughout the track by pointing out production goofs periodically throughout the film. The director gives us plenty of insights about how certain scenes had to be shot while the cast is always quick to poke fun at themselves in scenes. Editor Madeleine Gavin suggests that there was a ton of footage cut from this film, which leads to the question of why deleted scenes are notably absent from this disc.  

The only other extra on the disc which pertains to the film are a group of a little over a dozen story boards for the film. For the casual viewer this is something that can be passed on without any remorse, but those interested in film making might be interested in seeing how the vision of the director translated from sketches to shots on screen. One thing that will certainly bother many of you is when you first pop the disc in, you will be forced to view six trailers which can only be skipped through going from trailer to trailer; these are also available for viewing from the main menu of the film. I found it a bit disheartening that there was enough room for forced, promotional trailers on the disc, but not enough room for Mean Creek’s trailer or any of it’s deleted scenes.

Mean Creek
Overall
Mean Creek works on so many levels that it got to the point where I was slightly intimidated to review this film. The emotions are raw, with the situations very human. This is a film that adolescent psychologists and high school teachers should use as reference material. The themes and motifs should feel real to all who view it as we’ve all had conflicts in some form or another while growing up. The acting talent that was discovered in the casting for this picture is staggering. Remember these names folks: Ryan Kelley, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck, Carly Schroeder, and Scott Mechlowicz. If there is any justice in this world their careers will begin to skyrocket very soon. Then of course there's director Jacob Estes. There isn't a better feeling than watching a movie and immediately wanting to know what the director has in store for us next. That being said, I’ll be keeping an eye on this man's bio on IMDB.com. For the casual movie fan Mean Creek a guaranteed night of cinematic enjoyment, so go check it out.


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