Mean Creek exists in a strange time and place where tweens don’t carry cell phones and don’t spend their Saturdays in soccer practice. In this largely adult-free universe—specifically, a small town in Oregon—adolescence is unscheduled and unsupervised, and the result is a throwback: a population of baby faces who can take care of themselves but still believe in blood oaths, their innocence just barely trumped by a maturity that comes when one’s hand isn’t constantly held. The kids may or may not be all right, but they can figure it out for themselves.
And in writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes’ debut, that’s just what they do. Mean Creek doesn’t evoke nostalgia merely because of its unwired world or lazy-summer pacing. Its plot, about a handful of teens who set out to play a prank on the school bully, has elements of the iconic coming-of-age movies of the ’80s—The Outsiders, Stand by Me, and, most prominently, River’s Edge. You’ll likely know where the story is going shortly after it starts, but Estes loads his twist on the junior morality tale with enough atmosphere and realism to keep its telling mesmerizing.
The trouble begins when Sam (Rory Culkin), a meek slip of a boy, gets his lights punched out by chubby hothead George (Josh Peck) after he messes with George’s prized camcorder. Sam’s older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan, though with his apple-cheeked face and overgrown hair, his name might as well be Corey), wants revenge, and he hatches a plan in which he and friends Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley) will invite George on a canoeing excursion under the ruse of celebrating Sam’s birthday. Once safely out on the water, a game of Truth or Dare will coerce George to strip and jump in the river, at which point the gang will take off, leaving the big bad bully to find his way home naked and humiliated.
Leave it to a girl to mess things up: Also tagging along is Sam’s crush, the flaxen-haired Millie (Carly Schroeder), who’s by far the most compassionate and level-headed of the group. She hasn’t been told about the plan but is suspicious from the time George gets into Marty’s car, present in hand and smile on his face. When George proves to be nothing more than a friendly, if slightly weird, kid who’s clearly grateful for the invitation, Millie convinces Sam and Rocky to call off the prank. The combination of hot sun, cold beer, and a little weed eventually brings out everyone’s uglier side, however. It’s no surprise when, anchored in the middle of serene water—captured in all its sun-dappled glory by Israeli cinematographer Sharone Meir—the group members go all Lord of the Flies on each other.
Though the tension on the canoe reaches Das Boot levels, these are kids whom you don’t mind spending time with, even at their most misguided. Culkin is the most famous face, but he’s grown out of the family cuteness and portrays Sam as a thoughtful type who’s cool enough to hang out with the older guys but betrays a childlike uneasiness when things start to get rebellious. The rest of the characters, thanks to both Estes’ superb ear for teen dialogue and the cast’s anonymity, are equally natural Lost Boys, though Peck and Mechlowicz are standouts in roles that test your sympathy with alternating episodes of charm and jackassery.
By the end, the kids are traumatized, humbled, and hurried that much more into adulthood as they deal with a situation that was unimaginable when they pushed past their screen doors. Mean Creek isn’t so much about preaching what’s right or wrong as examining the dynamics of a group trying to determine which is which—a familiar scenario, to be sure, but one Estes makes worth retelling.
The main character in Danny Deckchair is all grown up, but it’s pretty clear he never suffered any Mean Creek–style trauma in his youth. Indeed, with his gangly limbs and unruly hair, he seems more of a senior Napoleon Dynamite, the kind of harmless oddball who won’t—or can’t—hide the fact that he’s a little strange.
Danny (Rhys Ifans) is misunderstood in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. At his job as a cement-truck driver, he faces questions such as “Is your head screwed on right?” and has to explain why he’s planning on flying somewhere just to go camping. At home, his twitty, social-climbing girlfriend, Trudy (Justine Clarke), is fed up with Danny’s lack of ambition and boredom-inspired projects, confiding to a friend, “Every night I come home, he’s doing something weird.” Trudy, a real-estate agent partial to fake, head-tossing bursts of laughter, is much more interested in wooing new client Sandy Upman (Rhys Muldoon), a popular broadcast journalist, than accompanying Danny on his stupid camping trip.
Trudy lies about not being able to go, and Danny not only finds out, but also catches her in a convertible with Sandy. At a barbecue the couple hosts shortly after, Danny thinks up a new escapist project: tying a flotilla of helium-filled balloons to a deck chair to see if he can get airborne. He does, without the shears he planned on taking to help make a gradual descent, and is soon caught up in a storm that sweeps him into nearby Clarence, where fireworks knock him down into the back yard of Glenda (Lord of the Rings’ Miranda Otto).
The debut feature effort of writer-director Jeff Balsmeyer, Danny Deckchair is pure confection, a life-affirming story about choosing your happiness and appreciating the little things in life. While Trudy uses the opportunity of Danny’s disappearance to become a 15-minute celebrity, small-town parking cop Glenda takes Danny in without question, soon becoming the subject of fast-moving gossip that she’s “got a bloke.” Danny so enjoys being a big fish, spied on by locals who are fascinated by his otherness, that he decides to craft a new life for himself.
Balsmeyer’s trifle is predictable and, touches of magic realism aside, at times rather difficult to believe. (How is it, for example, that the media frenzy accompanying Danny’s balloon-borne feat never included a picture of him, leaving the telly-glued residents of Clarence unaware of his identity?) But the film’s charm is difficult to resist, from the bucolic scenery of Glenda’s hillside home to the camera-courting glow coming off of Ifans and a fresh-scrubbed Otto as their characters demurely fall in love. Once Danny gets up in the air, waving to people at a sky-high restaurant even as he has no clue where he’s going, it’s clear that Danny isn’t as odd as he is, well, simply nice. The story of his blossoming in a town full of similarly genuine and friendly people may not have much bite, but sometimes it’s nice just to float away.CP