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Profanity, booze and it's good for you

Lauded morality tale 'Mean Creek' has a drawback: an R rating.

August 23, 2004|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

At first glance, it would seem a tough sell: a teen movie marketed primarily to adults.

"Mean Creek," an intimately observed morality tale that opened in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, focuses on a group of small-town high-schoolers who decide to play an elaborate practical joke on the school bully -- a revenge ploy that goes horribly wrong. In July, the movie won a prestigious Humanitas Prize, a screenwriting award that recognizes and encourages human values, which cited "Mean Creek's" "honest exploration of making difficult and life-changing choices."

But with its depictions of underage binge drinking and casual homophobia, and a script that is a virtual glossary of four-letter words and up-to-date teenage put-downs, the low-budget independent earned an R rating, all but guaranteeing that a large portion of its potential audience won't be able to see the movie unaccompanied by a guardian.

Indeed, in its opening weekend, the film took in $30,236 on four screens, barely a blip on the box-office radar screen, which saw "Exorcist: The Beginning" open in the No. 1 spot with $18.2 million.

"We make what we consider an authentic teen movie, and yet, because of the use of language that every teenager in America uses, a film that has a strong, positive message is given an R," said producer Rick Rosenthal.

Further limiting the movie's commercial prospects, older moviegoers have been typically reluctant to see movies about kids. "It's a difficult genre," said David Dinerstein, co-president of Paramount Classics, the company that is distributing the film. "Adult audiences often have a difficult time accepting a film where there's a teen protagonist." But "Mean Creek's" director, Jacob Aaron Estes, says an R rating is hardly the insurmountable obstacle the Motion Picture Assn. of America hopes it will be for movie buffs under the age of 18.

"Kids are really creative," he said. "If it's attractive to them, they'll find a way to see it -- even if that means by paying to see 'The Mummy Part III' then sneaking in to 'Mean Creek.' "

"That's the audience we would love to see the movie," added another of the movie's producers, Susan Johnson. "But you can't really make a buck selling it to the juvenile delinquent population."

Marketers for the small film cast mostly with unknown actors have their work cut out for them. For "Mean Creek" to reach an audience beyond the usual "smart film" suspects -- college students and art house movie devotees -- and for it to go on to wider national release in the fall, the movie must appeal to two seemingly opposed demographics: concerned parents (and other assorted family members) willing to take their kids to an "educational" movie and Internet-connected teenage cineastes who "discover" movies via movie-trailer websites.

"People can talk about it as if it's good for kids to see, and it may be, but we don't want it to come out like medicine," said Estes. "We have to shy away from promoting it that way. It's tricky."

Much of the movie's action takes place in a rickety rowboat adrift on an unpopulated river where the six central characters -- actors who ranged in age from 12 to 20 at the time of filming -- alternately bond with and antagonize one another to unnerving effect. Dinerstein hopes "Mean Creek," playing somewhere between "Deliverance" and "Stand by Me," will fit into a wider genre of R-rated teenager-in-crisis films from the 1980s, which includes the Sean Penn thriller "Bad Boys," the heavy-metal narco drama "River's Edge" and Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of the S.E. Hinton novel "Rumble Fish."

"What we're trying to do is remind people of those movies," Dinerstein said. "It has the spirit of those movies, which attracted an adult audience and were not necessarily for kids."

More recent kids-in-crisis films have been marketed as extended public-service messages to the moviegoing public. Larry Clark's disturbing 1995 teen sex exploration, "Kids," was widely promoted as "a wake-up call to the world." Catherine Hardwicke, director of last year's teenage girls-gone-wild drama "Thirteen," went so far as to call her film "cinematherapy," suggesting that mothers and daughters might bond by watching it together.

While Paramount Classics hasn't resorted to such tactics, it has cultivated the idea that "Mean Creek" delivers a positive message. "We've been screening it for teachers' unions and parents," Dinerstein said. "We feel that for anybody who has a kid or teenager, this is really a great movie to see."

Prior to the film's release, the distributor launched an aggressive word-of-mouth preview series organized in conjunction with the Independent Feature Project. Estes barnstormed across 10 cities, speaking at college campuses and to preview audiences, while "Mean Creek's" cast members and producers conducted Q&As at screenings in several cities in an effort to generate critical buzz for the film.

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