12 And Holding Michael Cuesta

Michael Cuesta’s 2001 debut, L.I.E., was a dark, unsettling film about a troubled 15-year-old boy whose most meaningful relationship was with a Vietnam Vet who also happens to be a pederast.

His latest film, 12 and Holding, is a decidedly less controversial but no less effective exploration of suburban alienation and abandonment through the eyes of not quite children. Underage sexuality, death, and revenge are all prominent themes but the focus is less on moral grey areas than on taking the horrific nature of preadolescence to its logical extreme.

The story begins with the accidental death of leader Rudy, burnt alive in a tree house fire, payback from some local bullies for dumping a bucket of urine on them earlier. Left behind to deal with the aftermath are his three best friends, their individual stories spiralling in different, often tragicomic directions. There’s Malee, the precocious daughter of a bitter, preoccupied divorcee (Annabella Sciorra) who develops an inappropriate crush on one her mother’s psychiatric patients. There’s Leonard, the overweight survivor of the fire whose loss of sense of taste and smell in the accident prompts him to embark on a nutrition and exercise regimen to the dismay of his obese parents. And finally, there’s Jacob, the less favoured, birthmark stained beta-twin of the more popular and athletic Rudy.

Racked with survivor’s guilt, he initially visits his brother’s killers in juvenile detention so he can taunt them with threats of vengeance upon their release, but eventually begins an unlikely friendship with one of them that grows as much out of an aching sense of loneliness as it does a desire to forgive.

Writer Anthony Cipriano’s script walks a delicate line between the sensational and the heartfelt, and he’s mostly successful. While some of the subplots rely too heavily on shock value and "ironic” plot twists, they are balanced by sharply drawn, empathetic characters and a gleefully dark humorous streak.

Once again, Cuesta coaxes striking performances from his young leads — Conor Donovan is especially impressive in the dual roles of Jacob and Rudy — driving the film and giving it weight through the various tonal and narrative shifts. (Maple)