-By Harry Haun

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Mean Creek is surprisingly deep, considering the fact it's almost entirely populated by teenagers. Instead of skirt chases and drag races, these kids are asked to grapple with a matter of morality--something that rarely comes up in the young-and-restless genre.

Indeed, this affecting and absorbing character study may be the best depiction of alienated youth to wash ashore since River's Edge, a picture to which it bears more than a passing, liquid likeness. The six youngsters of Mean Creek are not as perverse or profane. They're of a more ordinary cut--Oregon rustics--and the crisis of conscience that sandbags them is allowed to creep up on them. Narrow of vision, nobody sees it coming.

The schoolyard bully and his video camera open and close the film. His name is George (Joshua Peck), and he's forever picking on easy, little-guy prey like Sam (Rory Culkin). The latter's older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), relays the abuse to his two best friends, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley), and, among the four of them, they decide some playful payback is in order--like, taking George for a river-raft ride, stripping him naked and abandoning him. Sam's soon-to-be sweetheart, Millie (Carly Schroeder), is brought along for the ride to bear witness to the humiliation.

Along the way, things go tragically awry. Realizing that George's obnoxious behavior hides his pathetic neediness, Sam has a change of heart in midstream--the same change that marked the difference between An American Tragedy and A Place in the Sun--and tries to call off the game plan, but the die is cast, and George talks himself into tragedy.

Writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes, in an impressive and promise-filled big-screen debut, displays a keen sense of how teens speak and interact--plus an assured way of coaxing persuasively complex, life-size performances from his young and largely untested cast.

Virtually all the cast comes through with naturalistic, individualized performances, sans any apparent sweat or strain. Culkin, latest of the acting clan (You Can Count on Me), registers strongly as a point of identification. Peck musters a sympathy-for-the-devil undertow for the bulky bully. Kelley and Mechlowicz have their own crosses to bear (a gay father and a suicided one, respectively) and give nicely layered portrayals. Morgan is quietly solid as Sam's big brother, and Schroeder displays some girlish spirit and spine.

Sharone Meir's rugged photography of Oregon's outdoors adds to the realism, reminding us such scenery provoked the uncivilized behavior in Deliverance and Lord of the Flies.

-Harry Haun

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