"Something's got to give," intone the adolescent moralists in the subdued yet powerful revenge drama Mean Creek. They're forecasting an end to the reign of terror of George (Josh Peck), a pudgy middle-school bully well known for his psychopathic rages. George has recently landed a shiner on Sam (Rory Culkin), a classmate who's a poor choice for a punching bag: The latter comes equipped with a tough but caring older brother (Trevor Morgan) who's more than happy to conscript his own friends in a campaign of payback against George's fisty tyranny.
The scheme they hit on is to proffer a phony olive branch to George by inviting him on a group boating trip, then take the opportunity to throw a scare into the little hellspawn that he won't soon forget. But as soon as all the parties involved including Sam's new girlfriend, Millie (Carly Schroeder) have piled in a car for the fateful excursion, it becomes clear that George isn't quite the monster he seems. Slow-witted and desperate for acceptance, he's more to be pitied than feared a realization that inspires some controversy as his hosts debate the merits of going through with their planned punishment.
Writer/director Jacob Estes introduces the theme of George's complexity relatively early, deconstructing his villainy to play up the pressures weighing on the kids who now control George's fate. Broken families and secret shames abound, and they all live in fear of incurring typical peer-group value judgments: who's "gay," who's "retarded," who's still a virgin. The cast of (mostly) unfamiliar faces Estes has assembled conveys these learned anxieties with astounding skill and consistency. Schroeder's work is especially nimble, revealing the inner strength of a character who is, more often than not, the movie's voice of conscience.
You won't leave the theater confused about George's destiny, but you will be uncertain of the extent to which the boating episode determines the rest of the kids' futures. Riding the train of cause and effect to its final stop proves of limited interest to Estes, who's more interested in mapping the mental topography of a moral quandary. The path his junior avengers choose is one that forces them into an awareness of their own responsibility recognition that doing the right thing is more than just a situational ethic.