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Without a paddle 

First-time director gets stuck in a genre whirlpool

If you wanted to build the perfect indie, with all of the formulaic soullessness that implies, you could do no better than Mean Creek. Take the classic three-act structure championed by story gurus Robert McKee and Syd Field, add a cast of talented young actors and a host of devices lifted from previous films in your genre, and you've got a film with the Sundance stamp of approval.

One can only imagine the pitch for Mean Creek as a Stand By Me-meets-Deliverance with a dash of Larry Clark thrown in for good measure. Jacob Aaron Estes' debut film is about a group of Oregon adolescents who take the school bully on a river trip he'll never forget after he's beaten middle schooler Sam (Rory Culkin) one too many times.

Sam's teenage brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) and his buddy Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), an archetypal volatile redneck, decide to help Sam out on his vendetta.

The group secures a boat and devises a Very Simple Plan to have bully George (Josh Peck) stripped naked and left to breaststroke home. But God -- or perhaps just McKee himself -- has touched the plot with the divine wand of fate.

Once the creek trip begins, Sam encounters some resistance to the revenge plot from Millie (Carly Schroeder), a mini indie bombshell with the sultry sweetness of Patricia Arquette. Bringing Millie along was poor planning on Sam's part, but great planning on Estes', since every script since the dawn of time assures us that girls will always serve as society's conscience.

Estes may think he's dealing with murky moral issues here, but the film is as calculated and crystal clear as they come. The characters we most expect to behave compassionately do. The characters we expect to behave violently do. Estes (who also wrote the film) initially paints George as a pathetic, friendless geek whose obsessive videotaping of his life only reveals his onanistic solitude. By the end of the journey, George's true, noxious colors come through, encouraging viewers to hate him as much as the kids do. It is no coincidence that Estes has made George fat -- the film industry's single biggest indicator of villainy.

Every detail of Mean Creek is regurgitated movie convention, running the gamut of emotions -- as Dorothy Parker might observe -- from River's Edge to Stand By Me. Estes exhibits no emotion or empathy for characters like Marty (despite a strong performance on the actor's part), only a sense that he is fulfilling his fate as a movie stereotype. Pop psychology assures us, after all, that it's kids like Marty, who has a brutal home life, who are the most prone to violence and most anxious to kick some ass.

Unlike the frighteningly amoral or brain dead kids in River's Edge, the teens in Mean Creek are essentially good kids who, in the heat of the moment, do something wrong. Estes is so afraid we might think badly of his characters, he does everything he can to let them off the hook. Their unfortunate circumstance is not the result of some moral lapse, just plain dumb bad luck, the Robert McKee turn of the screw.

When people descend into the metaphorical, primordial jungle far from civilization in works from Lord of the Flies to Apocalypse Now, they are supposed to confront their basest nature. But Millie's stabbing of a snail with a penknife doesn't quite cut it. What that gesture does suggest is Estes' preference for ludicrously symbolic dramatic moments.

Mean Creek feels like a supremely milquetoast film made not out of passion, but out of some assurance that a tight screenplay with all the characters' motives and artsy cinematography stacked domino-neatly in a row guarantees success. But as any game player knows, orderly dominoes are made to tumble, and tumble Mean Creek does. Its by-the-book perfection collapses in on itself into an unsatisfying mess.

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