Having been beaten up by school bully George (Peck), Sam (Culkin) plots with his older brother (Williams) to get revenge by inviting the boy on a birthday trip down the river. Once they get in that boat, there's no going back...
Mean Creek could teach Ocean's Twelve a lesson or two about how to handle an ensemble piece. Every one of the central characters is beautifully written and given such a fascinating backstory that the film could easily splinter off into six separate movies. The fact that they're all children only makes the level of detail even more impressive.
Showing immense technical skill and emotional understanding, writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes switches our sympathies from character to character like a game of pass the parcel. At the centre are our mixed feelings about bully George. He's incredibly rude - but that has something to do with his learning disabilities. His ongoing video diary emphasises his loneliness - but, boy, is he irritating at close quarters.
Estes enriches the plot by refusing to present each character's emotional dilemmas in black-and-white terms. Any sense of justice over a schoolyard beating stops being clear-cut when notions of conscience and guilt come into play. Equally ambiguous is the role of adults in this child's world - Mean Creek is a place where parents are noticeably absent, and the very mention of them only brings pain.
Pitching its mood somewhere between River's Edge, Stand By Me and George Washington, this showcases great writing, with exceptional acting from its young cast.