Jacob Aaron Estes' extraordinary writing and directing debut Mean Creek at first appears to be a particularly skillful entry in the burgeoning subgenre of cautionary youth dramas—see last year's hysterical Thirteen for a dire example—dedicated to the proposition that the kids today most assuredly aren't alright. In the film's kinetic opening scenes, Sharon Meir's masterful cinematography lingers over budding adolescent bodies with a nervy energy that can't help but recall the sex-saturated oeuvre of Larry Clark. Thankfully, Estes eschews the photographer-turned-director's brittle misanthropy and penchant for sensationalism in favor of a more delicate take on the cruelty and heightened emotions of adolescence. Sure, the intricately observed inhabitants of Estes' teenage wasteland smoke pot, drink beer, and sometimes heap abuse on each other, but most are guided by a nagging sense of morality that never becomes moralistic.

Mean Creek stars Rory Culkin as a sensitive kid whose brother and friends conjure up a cruel scheme to punish portly local bully Josh Peck: They plan to lure Peck out into the middle of the river, strip him, and force him to run home naked. But they begin to get cold feet when they realize that under Peck's obnoxious exterior lies an essentially decent human being, albeit one whose lack of social skills makes kindness and compassion difficult.

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Estes' keenly observed drama shows enormous perception about the Darwinian dynamics of early adolescence, the casual cruelty of emotional and social survival that enacts a horrific price on those at its bottom rung. Dyslexic, talkative, and permanently tethered to a video camera that documents his solitary life and vivid fantasy world, Peck, in a stunning performance, resonates as both monster and victim, predator and prey. Estes is generous enough to allow his beautifully wrought characters to see people for what they are: flawed and uncertain, unsteadily navigating through a complicated world filled with infinite shades of gray.