Thursday, August 12, 2010

Day 126: Time to grow up

Everyone has one.....that incident when you were a kid, usually a kid in that twilight between childhood and adolescence, with friends the same; the incident I talk of, is that one that started out as fun, as a joke or a prank, for everyone, but then went horribly wrong.

This is the territory that Mean Creek traverses.

George Toomey is a bully, he’s bullied Clyde, Rocky and now he’s beaten up Rocky’s younger brother Sam (Rory Culkin). Everyone’s had enough of George and so they enlist the help of the slightly older, and more streetwise, Marty to help them get even, to teach “fat” George a lesson. The plan is to take him on a boating trip, strip him naked, throw him in the river and make him walk home like that.

Sam brings along his young girlfriend-in-waiting, Millie, and the group of six set off for a paddle on a “beautiful day”. Even though George endears himself to his companions, things soon turn sour and then the river and events “turn a shadowy coner”. A game of truth or dare (always guaranteed to end in tears, sick, guilt and shame) leads the group toward the kind of harrowing incident (already mentioned) unable to steer away from it even if they could. The choice that they make after “the incident” will affect the trajectory of the rest of their lives and they know it.

Mean Creek has a filmic DNA that can be traced back to Stand By Me and Deliverance. Paralleling the former, it’s about innocent youngsters, in this case taking the boat out on the river, returning as youths, old-before-their-time, weighed down by an un-carry’able burden. In the immediate aftermath of the incident that takes place - a death - someone points out that it’s not as though Superman’s going to appear and wind the world and the clock back, what’s done is done and now they must deal with it. It truly is one film that, when I watch it, I wish I could turn back the hands of time for them. The authenticity, the truth of what happens in a split second, just the tiniest of seconds, is going to echo down through the years, out through their community and affect so many lives; it’s no grim jest. Yet, that’s what happens.

On a personal childhood note, I remember the time that my best friend and I went to a building site on a weekend when it was left unattended by the workers. We found fun and adventure amongst the planks, ladders and scaffolding and then childish joy throwing cupfuls of cement about the place, scooping the grey calcining lime powder out of the sacks. Then a sudden breeze whisshed through the open brickwork and blew the powder back into my friend’s eyes. That was a game that ended in his hospitalisation and temporary blindness for him; I’m glad to tell that he came good, but it could have been so awfully different. Whether accidental or - as in the case of Mean Creek, pre-meditated - scattered incidents in childhood can be cruel.

I’m going to draw a very long bow here and make reference to the killing of two year-old James Bulger by two ten year-old boys in England, in February of 1993. My thoughts then, were the same as they are today: a deep sense of sadness and loss for all the children involved, such a terrible terrible situation. Who can guess at the way miknds not yet fully formed work? I leave that to professionals much better equipped to talk on the subject than I. One year later and a not dissimilar killing took place in Norway, this time the victim was a five year-old girl. Just this year, on the 23rd March, the Sydney Morning Herald reprinted an article that was first published by the UK’s Guardian newspaper on the completely differing ways in which the two countries media and criminal systems handled the respective situations. I’m afraid that I don’t have the name of the article’s author, but I would encourage you to seek it out on the ‘net' and read it for yourself. Salutary and yet hopeful matter.

I first saw Mean Creek at the Sydney Film Festival, six years ago, back in 2004. An "indie movie", shot in Oregon, its the sort of film that is indeed the darling of film festivals; it caused ripples, beyond the creek, at Sundance and Cannes and deservedly so. I haven’t tracked the career of writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes since, but this debut of his is an exquisite postage stamp of a movie. It did get a tiny general release here in Australia, but I’m guessing that it would have passed most people by and I can only urge you to track it down now and give it the viewing it deserves.

Day #126 Tip: The Maturation Plot
Mean Creek - like Stand By Me, Bambi, Emma, The Portrait of a Lady and Saturday Night Fever - is what’s generally referred to as a “coming-of-age story”, otherwise known as The Maturation Plot. Here’s what our resident story scholar, Norman Freidman (‘Form and Meaning in Fiction’, Georgia Press, 1975) has to say:

“ involves a sympathetic protagonist whose goals are either mistakenly conceived or not yet formed...this insufficiency is frequently the result of inexperience and naiveté. His character must be given strength and direction, and this may be accomplished through some drastic, or even fatal misfortune....our long-range hopes that the protagonist will choose the right course after all, are confirmed, and our final response is a sense of justified satisfaction. Since this type of story frequently involves young people, we call it the maturing plot.”

Sam and his friends do choose the “right course of action” by story’s end but not all are in agreement and I won’t tell you just how it plays out; even so the film remains bitter-sweet (as it should do) probably leaning into the dark more than it does the light. But to everyone involved in Mean Creek I make my nod of thanks.

There but for the grace of God.....

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