Thursday, 25 February 2010

Mean creek

Following on from I'm Not Scared and The Boy With the Striped Pyjamas, I thought I'd talk about another couple of movies I watched recently that have child protagonists but are not made for the children's market.

Again there are similarities between the two. They both feature a group of young people separated from their small town community by the adventure they set out on. In one, the adventure is to find the dead body of a child. In the other they are intent on punishing a bully. Both movies feature troubled and dangerous older brothers and young men. Both movies try to show how children behave together, when apart from adult society. They are both set in Oregon.

Mean Creek is a movie that I was keen to see when it first came out, but which, like so many others, I missed and have had to watch much later on DVD. I actually bought the DVD some time ago, but it sat on the shelf because, to be honest, I was a little nervous of it, imagining it to be more violent than it actually is. It is superbly written, shot, cast and acted.

The theme of the movie is bullying, but had it been made for children - with that lucrative 'provoking-discussion-in-the-classroom' category in mind - then it would have been far more concerned with delivering a 'message' of some sort. Because it was made for adults it allows itself to be a much more complex and thought-provoking movie. It is more honest.

How many stories or movies feature an odious bully who gets his comeuppance? It is a device that must go back to the dawn of storytelling and is incredibly common in children's fiction. What is clever about this film, is it takes that simplistic wish-fulfilling notion and turns a spotlight on it. What exactly would that mean in the real world? What is a bully anyway? If you pick on a bully, what does that make you? Does a victim have to be nice for us to care what happens to him?

The bully is unpleasant and almost wholly lacking in our sympathy. And yet, because he is a child - and a child with his own problems - and we know that he is being set up and we are (hopefully) not bullies ourselves, we can't help but fear for his safety. Jacob Aaron Estes doesn't make the bully reveal himself to be lovable. That would have been too easy.

The tension in the movie is almost unbearable. We share the tension of the other children who are in on what they believe is a prank, but we also know that this is headed towards a far darker climax than that.

It is an essay on the limits of vigilantism, whether the target be an odious school bully or an odious Iraqi dictator. There is a wonderful line in A Man For All Seasons where Thomas More says he would give even the Devil the benefit of the law. His interviewer has said that he would 'cut down every law in England' in pursuit of the Devil. 'And when the last law was cut down,' says More, 'And the Devil turned on you - where would you hide?'

Justice is there to protect the accused, but also to protect the accuser should the tables turn. It is also there to protect us from ourselves.

I remember really enjoying Stand By Me when it came out and I enjoyed it again this time. It is from the novella The Body by Stephen King. I haven't read The Body - though I keep meaning to - but I do know that Rob Reiner made several important changes.

For one thing, he changes the location - from King's beloved Maine, to Oregon. Sadly he also softened the story quite considerably. Admittedly the resulting Tom Sawyerish quality is a big part of its considerable charm.

Keiffer Sutherland's character is the main problem for me. Leaving to one side the fact that his appearance makes little concession to the 1950s - he looks like he has stepped straight out of a 1980s pop video - and that he has clearly been rehearsing his Jack Bauer cocked head, staring psycho shtick for far too many years, Sutherland's character is not allowed to have the level of threat that the delinquents in Mean Creek have. Ace seems more like Biff from Back to the Future.

In Mean Creek you feel the older characters are capable of anything. You need to believe that for the story to work. In The Body, the boys return to a vicious beating - surely the realistic consequence of having pointed a gun at the local hoodlums. Fingers and ribs are broken. In King's story, those bullies are real. In the essentially nostalgic and sentimental Stand By Me they are simply another version of the scrap yard dog - another trial to be overcome. It is that very seductive myth of the little guy standing up to the big guy and coming out on top. They still stand up to the bullies in The Body, but in the novella they have to suffer the consequences. Perhaps that simply doesn't have the same box-office pull.

Having said that, the cast of children play their parts very well. River Phoenix is a particularly charismatic presence and the opening and closing narrations concerning the subsequent lives and deaths of the other characters seem now to have an even more poignant edge to them.

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