In his follow-up to "L.I.E.," an ominous, disturbingly comfortable look at a teenage boy's friendship with a pedophile, director Michael Cuesta again explores the world of childhood angst, family dynamics and the cycles that both comfort and betray us. Cuesta's film, based upon a script by Anthony Cipriano, follows the interconnected lives of three 12-year-old children in New Jersey forced to come of age quickly following the accidental killing of one of the children's twin brother by local bullies. This tragic event both inspires and inhibits the efforts of these young children to grow up, face maturity and somehow cope with their own everyday life challenges.
The masterstroke of Cuesta's film lies in its multi-layered complexity and Cuesta's absolute refusal to make judgments upon any of these children regardless of their actions. In many ways, Cuesta's film feels like a Todd Solondz film with less of an agenda attached to it.
After the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, one of the most common questions raised was "How did the parents of Eric and Dylan miss all the signs?" With "Twelve and Holding," Cuesta seems to be implying that we're all missing the signs and allowing the cycles that allow, even force, our children to grow up lost, confused, insecure and enraged. Loving our children is simply not enough is the overwhelmingly common factor in the lives of Cuesta's three children. Their parents, in their own screwed up way, do love them. The problem appears to be that they haven't a clue HOW to love them effectively and in a way that supports, nurtures, guides and provides them a safe structure to grow, experience and express their thoughts, feelings and ideas along their journeys.
The most tragic and challenging of these journeys belongs to the twins, Jacob and Rudy (both played by Conor Donovan). When the two brothers get in a fight with the neighorhood bullies, the bullies promise revenge and swear to tear down their prized treehouse.
Rudy, always more confident and assertive, is joined by their immensely overweight friend Leonard (Jesse Camacho) in spending the night in the treehouse to defend it. Jacob, who often hides behind a literal mask to hide an enormous wine-colored birthmark across his face, refuses to join the two and stays behind. When the bullies arrive, unknowingly Leonard and Rudy have fallen asleep...the bullies fireball the treehouse not realizing until it is too late that the two boys are actually in it.
Leonard survives, but loses his sense of taste and smell. Rudy, however, does not survive.
Jacob, who has long felt like a second-class citizen in his own home, is now overwhelmed with the guilt of refusing to stand beside his brother. He is surrounded by a father (Linus Roache) who seems to think that cleaning himself and his house will somehow wipe away the dirtiness of grief, and a mother (Jayne Atkinson) who vacillates between a desire for a revenge and an emotional paralysis that renders an action at all unlikely.
Jacob seems to cope mostly by listening to the life advice of his closest friends, the aforementioned Leonard and Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum). After the bullies are able to plea bargain their way into a one-year juvenile sentence, Conor begins visiting Kenny (Michael Fuchs) in juvenile. His visits alternate between vivid, descriptive threats of retaliation and the possibility of a friendship developing between the two following the unexpected suicide of the other bully.
Leonard, whose own physical education teacher (Bruce Altman) calls "the most out-of-shape kid I've ever seen," comes away from his near death experience with an inspired but flawed sense of renewal. Growing up with parents and siblings who all embrace food as the answer to every life challenge, Leonard begins to see life differently without the senses of taste and smell that he formerly so richly utilized. Watching the scenes of of downright food intoxication between Leonard and his families is a far more effective deterrent to fast-food than any documentary Morgan Spurlock can think up...these scenes are simply disturbing.
When Leonard goes head-on into his health kick, he tries to forcibly take his family with him. His parents (Tom McGowan and Marcia DeBonis), of course, are resistant and ridiculing of his efforts. When Leonard is deprived of a valued vacation with his father due to his "behavior," he plots ingeniously to alter his mother's behavior with near tragic results.
Malee, while not directly involved in Rudy's death, nonetheless grieves the loss as it seemingly reflects her own loss of her father as a male figure in her life. Being raised but not really parented by her psychotherapist mother (Annabella Sciorra), Malee becomes obsessed with a construction worker (Jeremy Renner) who she meets in her mother's waiting. Her obsession is, at times, quite sweet and other times uncomfortably sad and tragic.
How these three young people circumnavigate the potholes ranges from frightening to disturbing to funny to eye-opening. As in "L.I.E.," Cuesta serves more as a companion to the journey rather than the journey's guide. The end result is that Cuesta's film feels less manipulative than Larry Clark's "Kids," less histrionic than "American Beauty" and less judgmental than a Todd Solondz film.
In "Twelve and Holding," it is a fine line between good and bad behaviors. This line is crossed on various occasions by virtually every character...ultimately, the actions become less about good and bad and more about the cycles that so often define the journey we are on.
"Twelve and Holding" would have little chance of working were it not for strong performances by its young leads. Unfortunately, the weakest of these performances is offered by Conor Donovan in the dual roles of Rudy and Jacob. While his character is a bit singularly focused in Cipriano's script, Donovan seems a bit less in touch with the multi-layered aspects of his character. His actions seem less intentional and far too incidental to fit their dramatic nature. While Donovan's performance is far from weak, it pales in comparison to Camacho and Weizenbaum.
Weizenbaum (recently seen as the young pumpkin in "Memoirs of a Geisha"), on othe other hand, is clearly in touch with the multi-layered aspects of young Malee. Weizenbaum's scene where she finally attempts the seduction of the construction worker is nearly as uncomfortable as the bench scene in Kevin Bacon's haunting "The Woodsman." Weizenbaum responds heartbreakingly to even the slightest praise from a male figure, including her band teacher (the always impressive Mark Linn-Baker). This storyline, perhaps more than any of the three, feels like it could very well be an everyday occurrence for a child. Thus, it's nearly impossible to detach from the very possible nature of Malee's story. It is made even more powerful by Sciorra's stunningly plain and matter-of-fact performance. This is not a Sciorra we've seen on screen before, but this is a marvelous Sciorra performance.
Anyone who saw Renner's performance as Jeffrey Dahmer in the film "Dahmer" will be a tad more haunted by his performance here as the object of Malee's affection. Yet, Renner is nicely restrained here with a performance that is constantly asking "Good guy? Bad guy? Screwed up guy?"
Leonard's storyline, which spirals a bit into absurdity, is nonetheless hypnotic and, perhaps, the most realistic resolution of all. With a remarkably balanced and often funny portrayal, Camacho beautifully captures the life of a young man struggling to change in a world that, perhaps, actually accepts him too much the way he is. Only his P.E. coach seems to balance both accepting him and challenging him to change.
DeBonis, in particular, is stunning as Leonard's mother. She presents a complex character who feels betrayed by her son's sudden changes, insecure about what it all says about her and, perhaps most amazingly, fiercely and awesomely protective of him when his efforts to help her nearly turn tragic. DeBonis, who also appeared in "L.I.E.", is simply astounding in a role that is actually rather brief in screen time.
"Twelve and Holding," filmed on a paltry by today's standards budget of $400,000, is an astonishing, if not flawless, sophomore effort from director Michael Cuesta. While the dialogue is, at times, a bit too cliche' and the resolutions a bit too structured, it is the film's journey that is so memorable.
By presenting these children calmly and largely without pretense, Cuesta's final message to all of us seems to be that these are OUR kids...these kids are the rule, and not the exception. Their stories, both the dramatic and the mundane, are being played out across America virtually day after day.
There is, however, a thread of hope Cuesta seems to imply. The question is "What kind of cycle will we weave?"