American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Mean Creek" opens with a schoolyard bully picking on a smaller kid, develops into a story of revenge, and then deepens into the surprisingly complex story of young teenagers trying to do the right thing. It could have been simple-minded and predictable, but it becomes a rare film about moral choices, about the difficulty of standing up against pressure from your crowd.
Sam (Rory Culkin) is small for his age, bright, articulate. He has become the favorite target of George (Josh Peck), a chubby, spoiled kid whose aggression, we eventually learn, masks a deep loneliness. Certainly George is obnoxious on the surface; I was reminded of specific bullies who operated in the schools of my youth, bullies who never seem to attend our class reunions, although if they did I would cross the room to avoid them. Childhood wounds are not forgiven.
Sam gets pounded by George in a schoolyard fight one day, and that angers his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan). Rocky is a teenager whose triumphs are behind him: He got points for smoking and drinking before anyone else did, was probably sexually active at an early age, was macho and good-looking, was popular within a narrow range, and is now facing his working years without the skills or education to prevail. He's a type familiar from Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," the recent high school graduate still hanging out with younger kids because those his own age have moved on.
Sam runs with a crowd of close friends, including Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Millie (Carly Schroeder), who will become his girlfriend when they figure out their half-formed feelings. Marty has problems, including a father's suicide and an older brother who picks on him, and of course the bully George knows how to push his buttons.