At the Humanitas Prize awards luncheon in Universal City earlier this summer, Jacob Aaron Estes picked up a $10,000 cash prize honoring the screenplay for his Paramount Classics film, "Mean Creek," which opens this weekend.
When asked what he would do with the money, the Chicago-bred writer/director told The Journal, "Pay rent."
The "Mean Creek" script depicts what happens when a teenage prank goes horribly wrong on a rafting trip. Such unexpected cruelty, Estes said, is based on "a whole accumulation of childhood experiences that I borrowed from."
The experiences utilized include the one summer Estes, who was raised in a Russian Jewish home, spent in California at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp near Lake Tahoe. He was 12 years old and overweight.
"I was tortured at Jewish camp, absolutely," said Estes, who at 31 could be mistaken for a relation of actor Vincent D'Onofrio.
But summer camp taunting makes up just a small part of the "Mean Creek" DNA. Set in Oregon, the film's main character, Sam (played by Macaulay Culkin's sibling, Rory), tells his older brother about being harassed daily at school by bully George (Nickelodeon's "Drake & Josh" star Josh Peck). Seeking revenge, the brothers invite George on a river raft trip with several other kids, with plans to abandon the bully in the wilderness. During the trip, Sam learns how lonely George is and, out of pity, tries to abort the planned revenge, but the river's harsher course changes their lives.
"The story is about good kids who get caught up in something that gets much more ugly than they ever intended to create," said Estes, who wrote and directed the short film "Summoning" in 2001.
"It's launched by a revenge fantasy that goes horribly wrong," he said.
The R-rated "Mean Creek" was an official selection at the Cannes, London and Sundance film festivals. Aside from the raft trip's blonde girl Millie (Carly Schroeder) being called a "JAP" by the other kids, the film's religious references are minimal and only in passing.
"It's about the conflict of different backgrounds," Estes said. "It's a very tough age."
"Mean Creek" opens this weekend at Laemmle Sunset 5 and next weekend at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com.