(2003)4Derek ArmstrongOf all the films that deal with the slippery morality of youth -- Kids and Thirteen come to mind -- Mean Creek is one of the few that does more in the name of complicated truth than simplistic shock value. Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes really has something to say here, and thank goodness, it's not that teens left unsupervised become sociopaths. The bully at the center of Estes' captivating debut is alternately annoying and congenial, just like any precocious mid-teen -- and not unlike the teens who plot to teach him a lesson. Estes has a remarkably assured sense of the balance between kids' antisocial public persona and their underlying decency, and how peer posturing can cause that joking aggression to morph into something real and ugly. Estes also has an ear for their dialogue, and his occasional use of digital video (the bully is never without his DV camera) lends the film a palpable sense of realism. A good script and some astute symbolism wouldn't fly without strong performances, and Mean Creek has these as well. In direct contrast to his straight-laced work in Eurotrip, Scott Mechlowicz simmers as the rebellious instigator, and Rory Culkin shows the chops displayed by his older brother Kieran (but, alas, not his older brother Macaulay). As the lone girl on the boating trip, the impossibly innocent-looking Carly Schroeder has her own strong moments of moral weakness. They all contribute to giving the potentially clunky, overly literal title a secondary meaning: these kids may be mean, as in cruel, but they're also mean, as in...average.