The bully in director Jacob Estes' "Mean Creek" is an overweight, obnoxious, hair-trigger explosive named George, and the neighborhood kids seeking revenge have George right where they want him. They're on a boat floating down the river. They've been thinking about this all day long: Strip the fat boy of his clothes, ditch him and send him bounding through the woods, sobbing and buck-naked. But George won't be finding his way home today, as the events take a darker turn along the river's edge.
"These are good kids, out to serve some comeuppance to a guy who, from their perspective, rightfully deserves it. But it just gets out of control," says Estes, 31, whose first feature, which opened here yesterday, was one of the more talked-about entries at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Estes is on his second cup of coffee at the strenuously fashionable Hotel Rouge, a place seemingly built for the occasional Hollywood emissary. Despite the morning's overcast light washing over the cafe booth, Estes has a way of tempering his booming voice with an inviting, slacker, sunny West Coast ease. He was one of those crunchy granola undergrads at the University of California at Santa Cruz and then a student at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, from which he graduated in 2000.
Because of its serious, often artful gaze upon youth violence and revenge plots, Estes' film has already been mentioned alongside Larry Clark's "Bully" and Gus Van Sant's Columbine-inspired "Elephant." So it doesn't take long for the conversation to turn to young bullies and their newer dramatic roles on recent movie screens.
In the past, on-screen, "the bullies that I can think of have been more one-dimensional," Estes says. For the most part, moviegoers have had an easy time spotting them as the biggest kids in the sandbox. Or the guys in leather or letterman jackets, strutting down a school hallway as the other teens step aside in a wake of fear and admiration.
Estes' bully is an outcast, a pushy geek. But he's also clever, funny and human enough at times that the other kids -- including Sam (Rory Culkin, youngest of the acting family), who suffers from one of George's schoolyard attacks -- begin to have doubts about their original plan.
"I don't think George is necessarily a new kind of bully," Estes says. "It's more about looking into the heart of your adversary -- recognizing humanity instead of objectifying him."
In "Mean Creek," the kid who orchestrates the revenge plot, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz of "Eurotrip"), is a brute himself. What's more, much of the violence, taunting and personal demons gripping these young characters often come with a disarming exhibition of male sexual tension.
"I have no problem with anyone seeing that in my movie," the director says. "I think maybe Marty has anxieties about his own sexuality that's explored through the way he badgers his friend Clyde, whom I don't see as conflicted about his sexuality, considering that he has two gay fathers."
That detail of Clyde's life can seem curiously out of left field in the movie, but Estes explains that he himself was raised in Chicago by his father and his father's gay partner since the age of 4.
"There was a little window when I was innocent enough to think that it was normal, so I just talked about my gay dads and no one cared," says Estes, whose father and mother divorced when he was 3. "But when the third grade came, everyone was thinking about it all of a sudden. When they started understanding what their homophobic parents were saying," he says, the kids at school started to make fun of him. "It became ugly to the point where I started denying that I had gay fathers."
Estes says he wasn't honest about his parents again until he reached the ninth grade. "By then I was intelligent enough to know that I had to be honest about my life. So, for the movie, I wanted to write characters who were as intelligent and as honest as I remember being at that age."
The director knew he wanted to write a screenplay reminiscent of the once-popular '80s genre that found teenagers navigating a moral vacuum in the absence of adults -- films like "River's Edge," "The Outsiders," "Over the Edge," "Stand by Me" and "Bad Boys." But Estes says the movie's revenge plot was inspired by a different emotional circumstance in his life. When he moved to San Francisco after graduation, Estes says he came eye-to-eye with his George on a basketball court. From that point on, Estes says, his screenplay blossomed.
"I had this story that was brewing intellectually, but not really developing," he says. "When the two things merged, the whole plot erupted."
Estes says the guy, whose name was Greg, stood almost seven feet tall and would always arrive drunk -- a constant horror for every player who frequented the court. But Estes, who is 6-foot-2, says for some reason the bully zeroed in on him, both verbally and physically.
"He keyed into me because I think he thought I was gay -- he had a lot of those sexual issues that we were talking about earlier," says Estes, who has been married for the past three years. "There's a point in the movie when George is erupting on the boat and Clyde says, 'No one talks to people that way, George,' and that's what some of the other basketball players said to this guy while he was attacking me. His words were so hostile and ugly."
Revenge fantasies began to consume Estes. He eventually acted out on one of his less violent, more creative ideas: He took a photograph of a "No Parking" sign and doctored it on his computer so that it read "No Greg." The sign also listed Greg's negative attributes: "drunk," "racist," "homophobic" and so on. Estes got on a ladder and glued the signs to the backboard of each of the baskets. The signs scored well with the other ballers, too.
"Greg went away for a while, but then he came back and things got worse," Estes remembers. "I eventually had to stop playing there."
Estes gave up his basketball court, but in turn he found the terrain he needed to complete "Mean Creek." The script would eventually kick-start his filmmaking career. It was selected to be workshopped at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference. It got him into the directing program at AFI in 1998. That same year the screenplay was one of five awarded the Motion Picture Academy's prestigious Nicholl Fellowship, beating out more than 4,400 other submissions.
"Because I won the Nicholl Fellowship, I was practically in every office of every studio," Estes says. "But then Columbine happened, and the studios didn't want to touch anything that involved kids and violence, especially from a first-timer."
The script was shelved for several years until producer Rick Rosenthal, who teaches at AFI and directed "Bad Boys," stepped in to finance the film with a budget of $500,000. (The film was shot in 24 days, much of it on Washington's Lewis River near the Oregon border.)
One could argue that today's reflective distance from Columbine also got "Mean Creek" through its long, twisting pipeline. As films take a look at today's more robust, more disturbing modern bully -- and the victim who can easily become the bully himself -- Estes says filmmakers won't be the ones flinching.
"Very dramatic things happen to us as teenagers, and teenagers learn about the world that way," Estes says. "I was looking at stories that allow us to reexamine our relationship to these dramatic events, and in that sense I think stories about teenagers are incredibly relatable to adults. They're almost intoxicating that way."