Even if there's a great talent at hand, one can never assume there's going to be proper financing available to allow that talent to blossom. A good idea, even a good script, never guarantees a green light. A prime example is Shane Carruth (no pun intended), who debuted Primer at Sundance the same year as Mean Creek and proceeded to struggle to get funding for subsequent projects before distributing Upstream Color out of his own pocket nine years later. Maybe Estes had similar issues following Mean Creek, or maybe he simply was in no rush to duplicate that film's success. Or perhaps he's simply a Richard Kelly-type, someone who caught lightning in a bottle and then was just about finished.
Either way, the film itself remains pretty good a decade later. Estes, who lucked out with a thoroughly convincing teen cast, is tackling some fairly big youth psychology issues, and yet his strength as a writer is the way he manages to let them come naturally into the story rather than appear as moralizing pronouncements.
In a world that seems devoid of adult supervision, a group of friends invite a bully on a weekend river trip with plans of retribution for his beating up one of their little brothers. The movie opens with Sam (Rory Culkin) getting a shiner from the bully George (Josh Peck). When his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) finds out, he and his friends Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley) plot revenge. For Rocky, it's because he's protective of his brother, for the unruly Marty it's a chance for some edgy fun, and for Clyde-the most reticent of the bunch-it's because he's just tagging along with friends. But what seems like a relatively innocent act of retaliation (their plan is mean spirited, for sure, but not intended to be violent) grows increasingly complicated as George turns out to be far more complex than anyone thought.
He's a strange kid with some serious social problems, and his tendency to make videos of his life with commentary on how complicated his mind is bears some eerie resemblances to those shot by Elliot Rodger earlier this year before his tragic rampage. But George can also be pretty friendly, as he readily demonstrates from the get-go when he's picked up from his house, greets everyone, makes conversation, and even gives Sam a damn fine water gun (they've told him the reason for the trip is to celebrate Sam's birthday).
And yet his social issues are apparent throughout the trip, from the way he brags about smoking an entire pack of American Spirits in a day, or how much pot he's smoked, to when he asks for the recipe to some sandwiches Clyde made when in fact they're simply PB&J. George's amiable persona mixed with his social oddities (which are likely the root of his penchant for bullying) works as a machine of empathy, and soon everyone except Marty is feeling that the plan should be called off. But a sense of tragedy is inevitable from the beginning, and despite the sudden compassion the friends get for George, things do turn disastrous once Marty reveals to George that he's been tricked and George goes off his rocker.
Mean Creek is not out to revere of vilify anyone; despite the fact that Sam's initial beating sets the story in motion, there's really no central character in Estes' narrative. One of the pleasures of watching the movie is that it could really be about any of the kids involved in this initially amusing, and ultimately terrifying, situation. Consider, for example, Marty, who could have simply been the stereotypical bad boy-a real John Bender type-but who here is treated with a surprising amount of sensitivity and realism. When he's first introduced, he's walking out of a pizza joint with Rocky and Clyde, and after his predictable banter with his buddies, we feel he's someone who's easy to figure out.
But Estes throws the viewer for a loop when later he includes a scene of Marty at his home, shooting a firearm at some bottles only to be soon after demeaned by his intimidating older brother. It's a small scene, but it compels the viewer to consider Marty beyond a type and to ask where he's coming from and what he's hiding behind his bad-boy persona.
Estes' generosity towards his characters is seen most notably in George, who, rather then simply being a victim, is a fully fledged character whose personal demons are given far more consideration than one would expect given the film's initial premise. George could easily have been a device for Estes to show what can happen when a group of kids rally against a blundering bully. Yet even he is granted a few intimate moments that keep him far more interesting than one would expect, and also prevents him from being labeled a type.
That said, the film only runs 90 minutes, and as a result Estes' film isn't entirely satisfying as a full-fledged narrative. It leaves lots and lots of questions unanswered regarding these characters, and yet one ultimately gathers that he's less interested in a fully developed narrative than in accurately representing a very real situation in a very real time and place. Though it can be lauded for tackling some difficult questions, its best moments are the small ones when Estes allows his young actors to simply exist as their characters. Despite the clear echoes of classic movies like River's Edge and Deliverance, Estes' fastens himself less to history, nostalgia, and myth than to capturing a fully realized moment. Mean Creek is by no means a great movie, but it has enough going for it that one would expect Estes' to feed off its success and create more compelling and true-to-life dramas. That he hasn't is a bit of a letdown. The film is good enough that one would hope for him to take this experience and grow as a filmmaker. That he hasn't has left Mean Creek, only a decade later, mostly obsolete.