Twelve And Holding (USA, director Michael Cuesta): Ostensibly about a group of friends, this film tells three separate tales that veer from comedy to tragedy and back again. I’ll sketch them in the order of most successful to least.
Malee lives with her mom and never sees her dad. She’s just started her period and begins to develop a very strong crush on a construction worker who is one of her therapist mother’s patients. Her attempts at flirting are both painful and very funny to watch. She’s obviously missing a father figure, but there’s something else stirring as well, and she’s lonely and looking for adult attention. Zoe Weizenbaum was just a joy to watch, beautiful and earnest and lovable and willing to take amazing risks for the film. The director told us to watch out for her as “Young Pumpkin” in the upcoming Memories of a Geisha.
Leonard is an overweight kid from a family where everyone is overweight, and he’s tired of being the butt of other people’s jokes. After a serious accident in which (bizarrely) he loses his senses of taste and smell, he starts eating healthy food and exercising, and takes radical action to, as he sees it, save his mother’s life. Played soulfully by Jesse Camacho, Leonard is never just comic relief, but a hurting little boy who wants to change not only his life, but his family’s as well.
Jacob (Conor Donovan) and Rudy (also played by Conor Donovan) are twin brothers who are very different from each other. Rudy is athletic and fearless, Jacob withdrawn and shy, mostly because of a large birthmark on his face. One night, Rudy and Leonard stay overnight in their treehouse, after bullies threaten to destroy it. Their plan to stay awake and defend it goes horribly wrong when they doze off, and the bullies light it on fire, unaware that anyone is inside. Leonard escapes with relatively minor injuries (but as noted above, the odd side effect that he can no longer smell or taste). But Rudy is killed, and his family is devastated. Jacob is racked with guilt for not being with the others on the night of the fire, but he’s also filled with a desire for revenge. After the two perpetrators are sent away to a juvenile facility for a year, Rudy and Jacob’s mother expresses her wish that the guilty pair die, a sentiment that Jacob stores away in his heart.
For a while, Jacob goes to the juvenile facility regularly to threaten the two, telling them that when they get out, he’s going to kill them. But after one of the boys commits suicide in custody, Jacob softens and even continues to visit the other boy and bring him comic books. As the boy’s release looms, they make a plan to run away together. Jacob is unhappy at home, feeling unwanted due to the arrival of a new adopted child. But his plans lead to even more tragedy.
If all this sounds melodramatic, it is. And despite the heavy subject matter, at times there was a vaguely “after-school special” feeling about the film. This last story, which in some ways ties the others together, carries the most weight, but is the least successful. I’m not sure why, but it may have something to do with the huge dramatic burden placed on the shoulders of a young actor with little experience. The fact that the film careens through a wide emotional territory like a drunken elephant doesn’t help, either.
In the end, the performances of Camacho and Weizenbaum are so winning that I sort of wish they were in a film of their own. As a story of three kids seeking the love of their parents, the film is only partially successful. I also wish the kids had been in more scenes together, since you don’t really get to see why they’re friends in the first place. I’m giving this 7.5, though my graphic below doesn’t show halves.