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Writer's Guide to Selling Your Screenplay

The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander

. "Mean Creek"

This is an earnest film that latches into a theme of natural and immediate dramatic interest: revenge on the bully. Though first time writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes attempts to provide complexities and a twist of fate to make his story less predictable, the attempt is marred by a script that makes certain the audience gets every nuance. A little more confidence in allowing the audience do some of the work might have tempered an unavoidable sense of simplicity.

In the first frames of the movie we're looking through the lens of a digital hand camera. We appear to be on a school playground as a hefty teenager sets the camera up aiming at a basketball court where he tosses some balls and, mostly, misses. Suddenly, another boy appears in view as the camera is stopped and we cut to the production camera.

We're never told why sensitive and slightly built Sam (Rory Culkin) messed with junior high school bully George's (Josh Peck) camera but we can guess that it was an impulsive act of retaliation for past beatings he's suffered at the hands of the oversized loner. He doesn't get away with it but, then, either he or the writer didn't want him to.

George catches him and delivers yet another pounding, somewhat beyond what Sam's act justifies (we have to be sure we hate him enough). Later, when Sam's older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) elicits from Sam the reason why he's nursing his wounds with an ice pack, Rocky's brother-protector outrage demands a little payback. Rocky calls buddies Clyde and Marty (Ryan Kelley and Scot Mechlowicz) for a little confab, and the group decides to invite George out for a boatride on the creek outside the small Oregon town. The plan is to strip the bully naked and shove him into the river for a wee walk home and a bit of mortification.

To dispel any suspicions George may have about being invited to an outing with such a bevy of sophisticates, the occasion is represented to him as a celebration of Sam's birthday and, to seal the deception, Sam's outgoing blond girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder) is included, though without knowing the true aim of the adventure. Once she learns what's really going on, she insists that Sam calls it off. Which puts the little guy on the horns of a dilemma. Retribution versus affection. The boat is loaded and as they push off, burly George is having the time of his life. Afloat on the river, George does a character turnaround and suddenly becomes a nice guy (a disruption in our clear, clean hatred?).

Sam asks brother Rocky to cancel the intended purpose of the trip. Rocky is willing, but Marty, the eldest and virtual leader, won't agree. Disagreement and doubts pervade the voyage until George reverts back to his bullying ways with a stream of invective that seem to emanate from the depths of a very disturbed mind. The vile outburst hurts and demeans everyone aboard, provoking actions that become a lesson in punishment misdirection and lessons not found in any textbook. The creek turns coldblooded, mean.

All of which is portrayed by a team of capable young actors in the roles of the good guys and the bad. Scot Mechlowicz (Eurotrip) makes command seem natural, with the cocky self-assurance of a young Brad Pitt (and some facial resemblance to go with it). Culkin holds up his part as the injured party with a full plate of complex issues to balance. Carly Schroeder as his straight thinking girlfriend is as honest as a snowflake, impressively mature, and high on the scale of adorability. We may have, here, a few future stars with Schroeder making the lasting impression.

Though the technique is awkward and the premise preachy, the actors manage to take us to a sufficient level of fascination to consider the film a clumsy cousin to Lord of the Flies. The negative chord it strikes as a commercial movie is the depressing nature of what kids left to their own devices might bring down upon themselves, with overpowering consequences they're little prepared to understand, let alone deal with. This is a rite of passage with tragic dimensions, the mood bleak, the story a thought-provoking downer.

It might be noted that, with this story, first-time writer Jacob Aaron Estes won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Award in 1998 for best script, a competition of roughly 6,000 entries per year sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was later asked to direct it, as well. I may have had difficulties with the technical aspects of the film, and the unsure hand at the helm, but I was left with a sense of promise for just about all who participated.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner

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