Mean Creek is a quiet little morality tale for teenagers that grows up fast. Shot along the Lewis and Clackamas Rivers in upstate Oregon, the film touches on issues of peer pressure, responsibility, and conformity with a hint of intelligence and complexity rarely seen in teenage dramas today.

On a school playground in a small Oregon town, a young boy is attacked by a local bully after he accidentally knocks over the bully’s video camera. The young boy is Sam and it’s not the first time he’s been bullied by George. Embarrassed and icing his wounds at home, Sam tells his brother Rocky about the incident and the two conjure up a playful scenario to get even. The plan involves inviting George on a birthday boating trip, along with a few other close friends, engaging in a game of Truth or Dare, and leaving George naked and stranded with no way to get back home. With encouragement from Rocky’s older friends, Marty and Clyde, George accepts the invitation and the plan is readily put into motion.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the creek. Unexpectedly, a different side of George emerges, one that is thoughtful, genuine, and insecure. And it has an immediate effect on Millie, Sam’s girlfriend, particularly when she realizes what the boys are planning. Although Sam pleads with his brother and the rest of the gang to call it off, the wheels of fate are far too strong to stop.

According to a study from the American Medical Association, nearly one out of every ten public school students has been the victim of a bully during their teenage lives. And as many as 15% of all teenagers have participated in the bullying of another student. Bullying has become intertwined with our culture, a culture that constantly defines itself by appearance, and one that places a heavy burden on teenagers to act and behave more like adults. These pressures create resentment, hostility, frustration, and competition. And the film captures this phenomenon through the lives of six teenagers, all attempting to act a little more mature, but also revealing a little of their vulnerability.

Mean Creek is a smartly written film that refuses to fall into the traps of the teenage stereotype. Each of the characters is well developed with a clearly defined set of problems, values, and needs. Rocky is obligated to protect his little brother, Marty acts out because of his frustrating home life, Clyde doesn’t want to be judged because of his parents, and Millie innocently hopes for Sam’s affection. All of the characters, even George, have a need to belong, a need to be accepted in spite of their flaws. It’s only when George inappropriately uncovers them that the troubles really begin.

With a Nicholl’s Fellowship in hand and a directing degree from the American Film Institute, Jacob Aaron Estes developed Mean Creek. Despite the predictability of the main story arc, what makes this film special is Estes’ treatment and understanding of his characters. None of them are downright evil, but the beauty is how they relate and react based on provocation and tragedy. Marty looks to escape, Clyde internalizes, and Millie vents in a surprising way. And Estes is able to extract very authentic performances from his cast. Even more impressive is the way in which the characters mature psychologically, exercising conscience and moral judgment in the face of tragedy and undesirable consequence.

For a film based on the concept of revenge, though, it’s disheartening to see that revenge devoid of reason. At the beginning of the film, George innocently videotapes himself playing basketball alone when Sam comes along and nearly breaks his camera. This, of course, instigates George to take action and Sam gets pummeled. And it is this incident that provokes Sam and Rocky’s plan in the first place. But does one incident make him a bully? Although the film insinuates that George has crossed the line more than once, it’s hard to come to those terms without visual evidence. Of particular notice, when the softer side of George appears. Rather than invoke feelings of pity out of guilt, it invokes pity out of innocence.

Also damaging to the film is the absence of parenting. Other than Marty, none of the kids has much interaction with their parents. In fact, for Sam, Rocky, and Millie, we don’t really get to see them. While the intent is to capture teenage maturity, the lack of parenting makes the film less plausible and grounded. After all, would you let your thirteen year old daughter hop off in an unsupervised carload of boys? And when your son came home with a shiner, wouldn’t you demand answers? In a film that is all about coming-of-age, it’s hard to imagine growing up without some kind of positive or negative reinforcement from parents.

So why do bullies bully? Is it because they want to belong? Is it because they think it makes them cool? Or is it simply out of spite? In Mean Creek, the answer is not obvious, but the moral rings true – we are all a product of our own environment, for better or worse. And if we judge people by what they’re like on the surface, without taking the time to know them, we might as well be going upstream without a paddle.