This is a debut film of some earnestness that latches into a theme of natural and immediate dramatic interest: revenge on the bully. Though first time writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes attempts to provide complexities and a twist of fate to make his story less predictable, the attempt is marred by a one-note script that makes certain the audience gets every nuance of it. A little more confidence in allowing the audience do some of the work might have tempered the unavoidable sense of simplicity.
In the first frames of the movie we're looking through the lens of a digital hand camera. We appear to be on a school playground as a hefty teenager frames the camera on a basketball court to record his lack of athletic coordination. Suddenly, another boy appears in view, the scene goes dark and we cut to the production camera.
We're never told why sensitive and slightly built Sam (Rory Culkin) messed with junior high school bully George's (Josh Peck) camera but we can guess that it was an impulsive act of retaliation for past beatings he's suffered at the hands of the oversized loner. He doesn't get away with it, but then either Sam's character or the writer didn't want him to.
George catches Sam and delivers yet another pounding, clearly beyond what Sam's act justifies. Later, when Sam's older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) elicits from Sam the reason why he's nursing his wounds with an ice pack, big brother-protector outrage demands payback. Rocky calls buddies Clyde and Marty (Ryan Kelley and Scott Mechlowicz) for a little confab, and the group decides to invite George out for a boat ride on the creek outside the small Oregon town. The plan is to take the bully downstream, strip him naked and shove him into the river for a wee walk home and a bit of deserved mortification.
To dispel any suspicions George may have about being invited to an outing with such a bevy of sophisticates, the occasion is represented to him as a celebration of Sam's birthday and, to seal the deception, Sam's outgoing blond girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder) is included, though without knowing the true aim of the adventure. Once she learns what's really going on, she insists that Sam calls it off.
Which puts the little guy on the horns of a dilemma. Retribution versus affection. The boat is loaded and, as they push off, burly George is having the time of his life. Afloat on the river, George does a character turnaround and suddenly becomes a nice guy. Sam asks brother Rocky to cancel the intended purpose of the trip. Rocky is willing, but Marty, the eldest and virtual leader, won't agree. Disagreement and doubts pervade the voyage until George reverts back to his bullying ways with a stream of invective that seem to emanate from the depths of a very disturbed mind. The vile outburst hurts and demeans everyone aboard, provoking actions that become a lesson in punishment misdirection and lessons not found in any textbook. The creek turns coldblooded and mean.
All of which is portrayed by a team of capable young actors in the roles of the good guys and the bad. Scot Mechlowicz (Eurotrip) makes command seem natural, with the cocky self-assurance of a young Brad Pitt (and some facial resemblance to go with it). Culkin (Signs) holds up his part as the injured party with a full plate of complex issues to balance. 14-year old Schroeder (The Lizzie McGuire Movie) as his straight thinking girlfriend is as honest as a snowflake, impressively mature, and high on the scale of adorability. We may have, here, a few future stars, with Schroeder making the deepest impression.
Though the technique is awkward and the premise preachy (signs of a first-time effort), the performances manage to take us to a sufficient level of fascination to consider the film a clumsy cousin to Lord of the Flies. The negative chord it strikes as a commercial movie is the depressing nature of what kids left to their own devices might bring down upon themselves, with overpowering consequences they're little prepared to understand, let alone deal with. This is a rite of passage with tragic dimensions, the mood bleak, the story a thought-provoking downer.
With this story, first-time writer Jacob Aaron Estes won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Award in 1998 for best script, a competition of roughly 6,000 entries per year sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was later asked to direct it, as well. Though I may have had difficulties with some technical aspects of the film, I was left with a sense of promise for just about all who participated.
The DVD includes commentary from Estes and most of the cast.
With plenty of paddles, though.