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Inside the bully

Mean Creek (R) (88 min.) _ The first film by Jacob Aaron Estes resembles several other movies about teenagers feeding upon each other, with one difference: The bully doesn't get what he deserves. In fact, with only one exception, the bully is the film's most sympathetic character, a risky move that doesn't completely pay off.

George (Josh Peck, in an impressive performance) is overweight and talks too much, too loudly and too aggressively. We see him attack only one classmate, a runt named Sam (Rory Culkin), so we never get the feeling that violence is George's signature behavior. As the film unfolds, we learn that being a bully is the only way George knows to connect with his peers. He's a lonely kid, probably with a learning disability, who stretches the truth to make himself seem more important, or at least more like the classmates he desperately wants to impress.

We understand why George leaps at the invitation to join Sam and several others on a rowboat trip down an Oregon river. What he doesn't know is that it's a setup for a humiliating prank. That practical joke goes terribly wrong, as expected, but what occurs before, and especially after, the fact is what separates Estes' film from the usual teenage drama.

Nobody expects George to be so gregarious and, in fact, so thoughtful. He thinks the trip is to celebrate Sam's birthday, and even brings a present to the boy he punched a few days earlier. His need for inclusion is transparent enough to be pitiful, even to most of the kids who wish him harm. That idea carries over when the group returns home and can't figure out how to handle a sticky situation. There are consequences for reckless behavior in Mean Creek, a factor that too many films about teenagers don't consider.

But it isn't clear whether the group's guilt is a result of doing something wrong, or the possibility of being caught. A stronger stance one way or the other would have created stronger drama. Mean Creek floats a lot of intriguing ideas but follows up on few of them. We mostly learn about these troubled teens through heated exposition, arguments that almost stop the movie in its tracks (except for George's final outburst, which is almost too harsh to handle).

As such, Mean Creek is a worthwhile showcase for promising young actors. Peck, in particular, should be remembered when Independent Spirit Award nominations are voted. Carly Schroeder (The Lizzie McGuire Movie) may be right alongside Peck after a quietly revealing portrayal of a corrupted innocent. Scott Mechlowicz is forceful as Marty, the older ringleader whose aggression, like George's, is rooted in personal problems. And Culkin offers another reason why his surname shouldn't be a Hollywood punch line anymore.

Even at only 88 minutes, Mean Creek feels padded, with leisurely shots of river country and redundant conflict. That's a shame because there's so much in these characters and their almost completely ignored parents that might interest viewers. Estes seems to be feeling his way though a debut film, without the assurance that signals bona fide breakthroughs. Mean Creek is a nice calling card for everyone involved, but it could have been so much more. B

_ STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

John Waters goes on offensive

A Dirty Shame (NC-17) (89 min.) _ Let's begin with a warning: John Waters' new movie is relentless, unapologetic smut. Anyone with hangups about kinky sex _ and Waters wants to find that threshold in everyone _ will feel disgusted by the gleefully deviant indiscretions that Waters so lovingly depicts in A Dirty Shame. Imagine a flip-book composed of Hustler magazine cartoons and you'll have a general idea of what's going on.

Now we'll pause for a moment, allowing that stampede to the box office to pass by. Then we'll keep an eye on the exits to avoid being trampled by fleeing moviegoers who didn't believe that warning.

Waters hasn't made a movie this relentlessly trashy _ yet socially relevant in a demented way _ since feeding dog feces to the transvestite Divine in Pink Flamingos in 1972. Waters takes aim at what he perceives to be an alarming wave of American decency, presenting morality watchdogs as the real sickness and perversion as the cure. There is something to offend everyone in A Dirty Shame; even Larry Flynt might grumble that Waters went too far.

The story, such as it is, focuses upon Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a Baltimore housewife uninterested in sex until a traffic mishap gives her a concussion that unleashes her libido. Helping her arousal is Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), a sexual healer whose 12 disciples practice a variety of fetishes, seeking a way to achieve orgasm that hasn't been discovered. While straight-laced citizens _ known as "Neuters" _ plan a counterattack against indecency, Ray-Ray's group plots to seduce them into submission.

The movie is sporadically amusing, depending upon one's own lack of inhibitions, and constantly provocative. Waters wants to hear the audience groan, not with pleasure but apprehension. He wants to hear those seats squeak, not with passion but discomfort. He succeeds without question, except for a nagging doubt that going to such excesses is necessary to make his point. Much of A Dirty Shame isn't funny; it's just sick.

Describing what happens in A Dirty Shame is practically impossible in a family newspaper. Let's just say it's a movie in which Sylvia doing the Hokey Pokey at a retirement home becomes a mating dance, then a stunt that would get an exotic dancer arrested onstage. The listing of perversions goes so far that sometimes we're not sure if they're real or if Waters is just making them up from scratch. Oral sex is a constant theme, but any orifice will suffice for Ray-Ray's disciples. The final shot, when Ray-Ray achieves his rapture, will be viewed as hilarious by some and a relief by others that the whole sordid affair is ending.

Yet it must be admitted that there's something liberating about watching A Dirty Shame. No other filmmaker could make viewers wonder if the MPAA should create a new rating beyond NC-17 to cover such barrier-breaking cinema. By pushing audiences over the edge of bad taste, Waters forces us to consider why such material fascinates and repels, often at the same time. We learn about our own limits, what we consider entertaining or at least tolerable. At its worst, A Dirty Shame is a blight on humanity. At its best, it's good, unclean fun. B-

_ S.P.