Dir: Jacob Estes. US. 2004. 87mins.

One of the hidden treasures at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Mean Creek is a haunting teenage take on Deliverance in which a prank turns to tragedy. Sombre, gripping and often painfully true in its evocation of teenage concerns, it marks a stunning directorial debut from Jacob Estes, the kind of provocative young voice which Sundance is renowned for introducing to the world.

What's so memorable about Mean Creek is that it doesn't represent its teenage protagonists with any condescension or cliche. Even though the film lasts only 87 minutes, each character in the ensemble is carefully written and sensitively acted; their angst is suggested with a respect and understanding that should thrust any and every adult who sees the film right back into the anguish of puberty.

So while it's not Hollywood's view of teens a la She's All That or I Know What You Did Last Summer, neither is it voyeuristic like Larry Clark's kids, Bully or Ken Park. And if box office potential is limited by that unexploitative disposition, it is enhanced by the profound psychological drama and visceral intensity at the film's heart. With the support of critics and a potent trailer, audiences should be enticed to go down the river with these vulnerable kids.

The story, set in a small Oregon town, hinges on a big fat bully called George (Peck) who towers over his classmates and spends his time roaming around the schoolgrounds with his expensive camcorder. When the shy and hapless Sam (Culkin) meddles with the camera, George savagely beats him up.

Sam tells his protective older brother Rocky (Morgan) who hatches a plot to take revenge on George by inviting him on a birthday river-trip for Sam during which they will strip him of his clothes and make him walk home naked. George accepts.

Joining them on the trip are Sam's best friend Millie (Schroeder) and Rocky's buddies Clyde (Kelley), a sensitive boy whose parents are two gay men, and Marty (Mechlowicz), the good-looking leader of the gang who comes from a troubled home, is himself bullied by his brother and is close to being a bully himself.

Problems begin however when George turns out to be friendly, lonely and anxious for friendship. Sam gets second thoughts about the prank, but when the journey downriver begins, there is no escape. A game of truth and dare leads to a ferociously ugly war of words and a fatal accident.

Estes portrays the malicious cruelty of the kids with excruciating honesty while also pointing to the influences of their flawed upbringings in their actions and words. Only towards the end of the film do we actually see any adults, appearing too late to have provided help to their offspring in the brutal and deadly serious world of kids.

Beautifully shot on hot and humid summer days on rivers in Oregon and Washington, Mean Creek also showcases some noteworthy new acting talent, especially Mechlowicz who smoulders and struts like a teenage Tom Cruise. tomandandy (The Rules Of Attraction, Natural Born Killers) provide a suitably melancholy music score.

Exec prods: Nancy Stephens, Gigi Pritzker, Deborah Del Prete
Rick Rosenthal, Susan Johnson, Hagai Shaham
Int'l sales:
William Morris Independent
Jacob Estes
Sharone Meir
Prod des:
Greg McMickle
Madeleine Gavin
Main cast:
Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan, Joshua Peck, Carly Schroeder