Michael Cuesta, who showed unusual skill and sensitivity dealing with a troubled young boy, left on his own after his father’s arrest, in “L.I.E.,” returns to similar territory with almost equal success in “Twelve and Holding,” a weird but strangely wonderful tale of the pains of growing up among a trio of small-town adolescent friends. Odd and dreamlike in the way a child’s perception of the world might be, it’s a film that’s hardly realistic in the literal sense but is remarkably real from the emotional perspective.
The picture begins with a homespun tragedy–the death of one of two young twin brothers in a fire. As we see in the initial scenes, Jacob and Rudy Carges (both played by Conor Donovan) are very different despite their physical similarity. Rudy’s spirited and volatile, while Jacob–who often wears a mask to hide a disfiguring facial birthmark–is withdrawn and timid. After Rudy dumps a bucket of urine on a couple of neighborhood bullies who threaten the tree house in their father’s patch of woods, he knows that they’ll return to try to damage it, so he decides to spend the night there with his pal, chubby Leonard (Jesse Camacho). When the bullies come back, however, they set the structure afire, and in the blaze Rudy’s killed and Leonard tumbles to the ground and, it’s later discovered, has lost his ability to taste in the injury. Jacob, who’d been too frightened to go to the tree house, is devastated by the death of his brother, as are his parents (Linus Roach and Jayne Atkinson), who are infuriated when the boys responsible (Michael Fuchs and Martin Campetta) receive light sentences in juvenile hall.
From here the script splits into what are in effect three largely separate adolescent fables. One involves Jacob’s deep fury against his brother’s killers, whom he visits in juvie to torment with threats of what he intends to do to them when they get out. Another concerns Leonard’s newfound concern for working out and dieting–something that irritates his overweight mother (Marcia Debonis), whose eating habits he encourages her to change. And a third plot thread centers on Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), the fourth member of the original group, a bright kid who feels ignored by her mother (Annabella Sciorra), a therapist, and becomes infatuated with one of her mom’s patients, a deeply depressed fireman (Jeremy Renner) with lots of emotional baggage who finds her interest touching, if–ultimately–excessive.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the trajectory each of these plot lines takes; suffice it to say they all travel unexpected routes, combine the serious and the absurd, and express the combination of deep pain and wild enthusiasm that mark adolescent experience. And the denouement brings less reassurance than shock.
“Twelve and Holding” is the sort of film that, on the face of things, shouldn’t work. Its mixture of the commonplace and the surrealistic seems destined to clash so badly that the structure might collapse. Its reliance on largely untested child actors invites disaster. Its visual style (with almost garish cinematography by Romeo Tirone) sometimes assaults the eye. And yet in a mysterious way all the pieces come together to create a perceptive and highly moving portrait of youngsters of a tender age compelled by circumstances to assume roles far beyond their years–of childhood shattered by change and loss. It’s a theme that excellent films have addressed in the past (think of “The Night of the Hunter,” for instance), and though flawed in some technical aspects it’s a worthy addition to them.