***WARNING: The Following review may contain mild spoilers, so if you want the ‘virginal’ movie experience, read it only after you have already seen the movie.***
I don’t know why I enjoy coming-of-age stories as much as I do, but I can guess. I think it’s having to read The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies in my English class, as well as watching Mean Creek and Stand By Me recently. So there I was in coming-of-age mode and I was looking forward to seeing yet another movie about that subject. The fact that the turns this film took surprised me as much as they did, was astonishing considering my recent familiarity of this type of story structure. Granted, this film contains some type of connection to all of those pieces, but some more than others. Director Michael Cuesta and screenwriter Antonio Cipriano just happen to be personal friends of Mean Creek Jacob Aaron Estes and have frequently referred to that film as an inspiration for 12 and Holding. Still, while the film borrows the loss of innocence theme from Mean Creek, it changes the symbolic object to fire from water. In Mean Creek, water is an element that the whole story depends on, while in this one, fire is a little more symbolic, as it represents energy (physical, sexual, etc.,) Also, the film’s setting is a lot more similar to Stand By Me’s, and while it does contain some of its humor, most of the material here, like in Mean Creek, is more emotional, serious, and at times even disturbing, so I think it’s actually a nice balance between the two.
For those of you who were frustrated by Stand By Me’s cliched linearity and Mean Creek‘s open-ended screenplay, get ready to see a film that doesn’t contain either of those things. In 12 and Holding, Cipriano’s script takes turns and lets its characters make decisions that might not be predicted by the audience as easily, and in the end, Cipriano is not afraid to answer questions, although don’t expect the answers to be straight-forward either. With 12 and Holding, the filmmakers are trying to create an honest portrayal of a bunch of 12-year-olds’ lives. It’s also really complete, because it doesn’t focus on only one event in these kids’ lives, but numerous events, enduring traumatic experiences, complex adult-child interactions, and it also answers questions about the overlying evil that the children have to deal with and sometimes invoke themselves.
The plot is about as complicated as they come. Rudy and Jacob Carges (played by only one actor – Connor Donovan) are twins who live different lives. Rudy is the one that everyone likes, he has the approval of his friends and family, while Jacob’s passive attitude and his ugly birthmark which makes him wear a hockey mask, make him an easy target, not only for bullies, but even adults including his parents. Because his brother Rudy displays such bravery towards two local bullies – Kenny (Michael Fuchs) and Keith (Joseph Foster) – they decide to teach him a lesson and to burn up his treehouse. When they do burn it up they don’t know that there are actually people there. The people are Rudy and common friend – the overweight Leonard (Jesse Camacho). Rudy dies and Leonard gets an injury that ironically makes him lose his sense of taste.
Rudy’s death makes his estranged brother Jacob want to seek revenge against Keith and Kenny. He visits them at detention homes with threats and various other intimidations. Meanwhile, his only friend that seems to be left in this world – a tomboyish girl named Malee Chung (Zoe Weizenbaum) falls for Gus (Jeremy Renner) a man in his 30’s and decides to act on it. Leonard on the other hand, decides to get into shape, now that he can’t taste food anymore, but he is ridiculed by everyone, including his parents, about it.
It’s important to note how big of a role the adults play in these children’s lives. Malee’s mother (played by Annabella Sciorra) is probably the most subtly influential one, but the other parents have an impact too. Also there is Gus of course, who takes part in some of the more disturbing and pivotal scenes in the movie. Still, Cuesta focuses on the kids (just like he did with his last controversial film L.I.E.) and he is right to do so. Because of Rudy’s death, these children are forced to come of age way earlier than most kids do. Jacob’s reaction to his brother’s death is eerily parallel to Holden’s reaction to his brother’s death in the book The Catcher in the Rye, which is a very interesting thing to note.
Another compelling thing about this film is that Cuesta more or less, blames the parents of these children. It is the parents’ continuous neglect that leads to the outcomes of each child. He isn’t trying to argue that 12-year-old Malee’s seduction of a 30+ year old man is her mother’s fault, but he won’t mind if that’s what the audience gets. Speaking of that scene, it is more disturbing than most anything I have seen in any movie this year (although The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things comes pretty close in some ways), and the precarious scene during which Malee watches Gus taking a shower is equally disturbing. Of course, after seeing Larry Clark’s Kids as many times as I have, I wasn’t as disturbed as I thought I would be.
These scenes and other scenes in the movie are beautifully acted by the young child actors. Connor Donovan is great at playing two wholly different people in the same film and he definitely sells it. Everyone else does a good job too, especially Zoe Weizenbaum, whose performance contains, both innocence and adulteration, which is something I didn’t expect from a pre-teen actress. Of course, the adults do well also, and you can’t go wrong with big names like Sciorra and Renner in the cast.
Technically the film isn’t stunning, but neither was Mean Creek and that didn’t prevent it from having impact. Although I didn’t like the score as much, since it was mostly a cliche. Everything else is just passable and not really worth mentioning here. I think that if you like a compelling, well-acted drama, that is not afraid of pushing the buttons of the audience, you can’t go wrong with this. I still don’t know if I like this more than Mean Creek though, but I’ll find out after I watch it a few more times.