When Sam (Rory Culkin) is beat up by a school bully, his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) and his friend Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) plot revenge. They will invite the bully (Josh Peck as George) on a boating trip, telling him it’s a birthday party for Sam, and then play a cruel trick on him.
On the water, things seem different. George seems vulnerable, almost childishly happy to be included. He explains that maybe his learning disability makes him “a superior being, the future of the race” and uses his video camera to record everything he sees. His agression seems clumsy rather than hostile.
Sam’s friend Milly (Carly Shroeder), who knew nothing about the purpose of the trip, makes him promise that they won’t try to hurt George. Sam, who has begun to feel sorry for George, agrees, and Rocky reluctantly tells Marty to call off the prank. But Marty has been looking forward to this and it feels like one too many compromises when he wants something to make him feel powerful. Sitting in the boat, far from civilization, they begin a game of Truth or Dare. And then things get tragically out of control.
The movie never makes it all the way from idea to story, but the talented young performers give their characters subtlety and depth far in excess of the script. The screenplay emphasizes the obvious and the characters are too obviously created to fit into neat categories across the range of perspectives. The car they drive to the river has an “honor student” bumper sticker on it. The bully pecking order from Marty’s older brother down to Sam is as carefully calibrated as a slide rule. After-school-special level dialogue hangs heavily in the air after it is spoken.
But each member of the cast is remarkable, utterly genuine, transcending the limits of the screenplay, benefiting from sensitive direction. Peck bravely lets us share the kids’ mixture of impatience and pity toward George. Culkin provides another touchingly open and brave performance. Mechlowicz is exceptionally impressive, with real leading man potential (more than making up for appearing in the awful Eurotrip). The cinematography is superb, showing us the contrast between the placid surroundings and the explosive emotions. But it is the cast that makes this trip up the creek worthwhile.
Parents should know that the movie includes extremely strong language and very explicit sexual references, including sexual epithets. A character is called “faggot” and insulted because his fathers are gay. Middle schoolers are challenged to French kiss and others are dared to take off their clothes. There is a bare tush and implied nudity. Characters use a gun, cut their skin with a knife, and a character is beaten and another is killed. Teens and younger kids drink, smoke, and use drugs, and one who declines is insulted and pressured. The movie’s themes include vigilante justice and there is a painful reference to suicide.
Families who see this movie should talk about how and why the characters reacted differently to the situations they faced. What is the right way to deal with a bully? Why do the kids have so little faith in the adult world to help them solve their problems? Be sure to notice all of the different tactics characters use to get others to do what they want — questioning everything from their loyalty and integrity to their manhood. They should also talk about the effect that a secret has on a group and the way it makes the power relationships shift. Instead of bringing them together, it pulls them apart. What do we learn from the cameras in the movie, including George’s camera and the one in the police station?
Families who appreciate this movie should also see The River’s Edge, Tex, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, and Lord of the Flies.