Film

IT STILL ISN’T SAFE TO GO IN

Two movies, Open Water and Mean Creek, fill the water with predators from sharks to nasty teens

SHANDA DEZIEL August 30 2004
Film

IT STILL ISN’T SAFE TO GO IN

Two movies, Open Water and Mean Creek, fill the water with predators from sharks to nasty teens

SHANDA DEZIEL August 30 2004

IT STILL ISN’T SAFE TO GO IN

Film

Two movies, Open Water and Mean Creek, fill the water with predators from sharks to nasty teens

SHANDA DEZIEL

QUICK, PICK YOUR preferred water companion: sharks or teen bullies. Watch two new aquatic dramas, Open Water and Mean Creek, and the answer won’t seem that obvious anymore.

In the super-low-budget ($120,000) Open Water, a couple on a scuba-diving tour are left behind by their boat. That would be a nightmare for anyone, but shark-phobics in particular might find it best to skip this one. Husband-and-wife filmmaking team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau eschewed the use of animatronics or computer-generated effects and instead sent their actors into an area filled with real grey reef and bull sharks. (They did bring along a wrangler/expert who assured them this particular population was used to people.) Watching these creatures swarm around the couple’s legs is terrifying—and thrilling. For anyone who is, let’s say, just reasonably frightened by the water and its predators, then Open Water is a good kind of scare.

Starting off on dry land, work-obsessed yuppies Daniel and Susan, played by unknowns Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan, are trying to extricate themselves from their daily lives for a vacation. These opening scenes at the house and in the car look like they belong in a student film, only slightly better than a home movie. Expectations are lowered and the chances of this movie actually scaring anyone seem pretty remote. Then come the water scenes and it’s harder to be blasé. The dialogue gets funnier, sharper. Each frame is more menacing than the last as every angle delivers the exact same

ON LAND, the ultra-

cheap Open Water looks like a student film; at sea each frame is more menacing than the last

image: miles and miles of open water. And even before the supporting cast of jellyfish, scavenger birds and sharks begin to close in, you’re holding your breath.

Fun as Open Water is, Mean Creek is the better, more disturbing movie. In an unnamed Oregon town, where parents are pretty much non-existent and kids are misguided by big brothers and peer pressure, a boat trip turns ugly. Sam (Rory Culkin) has recently been thrashed by the school bully, George (Josh Peck). Now Sam’s older brother, Rocky, and Rocky’s two friends, want revenge. But Sam will only agree to something that doesn’t cause George any physical pain. So a more mean and humiliating plan is hatched, and all involved, including Sam’s unknowing girlfriend, head down to the local creek. When it turns out that George is not so bad after all, just in need of some friends, Sam and company must decide whether to go through with it.

First-time writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes has made something as powerful as Stand by Me and Lord of the Flies, but quieter and subtler. It’s more along the lines of the indie art-house hit George Washington, in which the stories and crises of nonstereotypical, self-sufficient kids are told in a non-pandering, adult-like fashion. Most impressive is his way with young actors, drawing out exceptional performances across the board. It’s difficult not to compare Culkin—the youngest of the showbiz brothers—with his older sibling, Macaulay, considering some of Rory’s best scenes involve acting opposite a pretty blond girl, reminiscent of Macaulay’s finest work in My Girl. But refreshingly, Rory has zero cute-kid affectation.

While Rory has rightfully surpassed Flaley Joel Osment as the go-to guy for dramatic adolescent roles and has stolen his share of movies (Signs, You Can Count on Me), this one is nearly taken from him by his older teen co-stars—relative newcomers Scott Mechlowicz (Eurotrip) and Ryan Kelley (Smallville), and the more experienced Trevor Morgan (The Patriot, ER). As characters with serious father issues (be they dead, gay or merely ineffectual), these boys are wounded, brimming with rage, insecurity and irrational thought. And when they paddle out intent on bullying a bully, they’re as deadly as sharks. 171