School bullies rarely get the comeuppance they richly deserve, so Jacob Aaron Estes's provocative tale of a fat thug who gets what's coming to him is already on to a winner. But Mean Creek is much more than a study of vicarious wish-fulfilment in the style of Larry Clarks's Bully. The movie's chubby tormentor is far more, er, rounded than your average playground sadist, while his would-be persecutors quickly realise their payback scheme is more morally dubious than they ever imagined.
Estes's canny gambit is to put us right inside the raft that takes shy Sam (Rory Culkin), his protective older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) and friends Clyde (Ryan Kelley), Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Millie (Carly Schroeder) up river. Trapped on board, we are made an invisible accomplice in their plot to humiliate George (Josh Peck), forced to decide for ourselves whether he is a nasty bugger in need of a good kicking or just a troubled adolescent as insecure as his vengeful `friends'.
Estes, who also wrote the award-winning script, rather mechanically raises the stakes by packing the boat with more traumas than a week's worth of Trisha. Marty's father killed himself, Clyde is being raised by two gay men and Sam has a huge crush on Millie. Are these back stories there to enrich the characters or merely to supply George with ammunition when he turns the tables? You have to ask, given the events provoked by this reversal. Still, it's good to see young protagonists sketched so sympathetically and Estes is rewarded for his insight with some terrific performances across the board.
Mechlowicz, the nerdy hero of Eurotrip, is a brooding, unpredictable dynamo as the raft's resident bad boy, while Culkin is both subtle and touching as the quiet voice of reason. But it's Peck you'll remember, the star of US kids' series The Amanda Show making George a bizarrely affecting and even tragic figure. He's also a mean cameraman, his shaky video-diary providing a neat contrast to Sharon Meir's coolly measured cinematography.