I first saw 12 AND HOLDING as part of the New Directors/New Films at NYC's Museum of Modern Art (jointly sponsored with the Film Society of Lincoln Center), and I can honestly say that my opinion of the film -- which was pretty high -- has only increased. I realize that this is the sort of film that will divide critics and audiences, much as Cuesta's debut L.I.E. did. That 2001 film appeared on my Ten Best list for the year and at this point, I suspect that 12 AND HOLDING will also have a place on this year's list.
The film centers on a group of friends and the various experiences (tragic and comic) they face as they negotiate the terrain of puberty and the threshold of adulthood. Twins Jacob and Rudy (both played by Conor Donovan) could not be more different. Rudy is athletic and the de facto leader of a his clique. As the film opens, he and Jacob are running from a group of older bullies. They seek refuge in a tree house and Rudy dumps a bucket of urine on their tormentors who vow revenge. Rudy, determined to protect his ground, sneaks out in the evening and hides in the tree house with the overweight Leonard (Jesse Camacho). The bullies toss a Molotov cocktail into the tree house, unaware that both boys are inside. Leonard manages to escape but strikes his head and is left without the senses of smell or taste. Rudy, tragically, is killed. His death leads to a series of events that, in Anthony Cipriano's screenplay, constantly surprise the audience.
Malee (the amazing Zoë Weizenbaum) channels her grief into her newfound female power. As the film opened, the precocious Malee had just had her first period and she now begins to explore the effect she has on men. Her therapist mother (Annabella Sciorra) is too preoccupied to realize just what is happening with her daughter, and their close bond is being fractured as Malee attempts to find her own way in the world. In her case, it means developing a crush on a former fireman turned construction worker (Jeremy Renner) who happens to be one of her mother's patients.
Leonard deals with the aftermath of his accident by deciding to try a more healthy lifestyle. If there's a flaw in the script and in Cuesta's direction, it is stressing the comic aspects of Leonard's overweight parents (Tom McGowan and Marcia DeBonis). But things turn more serious and the cartoonish tone is replaced by genuine caring and concern.
The most moving story is Jacob's. With a port-wine stain birthmark that covers half his face, Jacob has been the shy twin. He also has felt that his parents (Linus Roache and Jayne Atkinson) haven't loved him as much as they did Rudy. His insecurities are only increased when his folks adopt another child and his mother confesses her desire for vengeance. In an effort to heal, Jacob begins visiting one of the bullies at the detention center and gradually befriends the slightly older boy.
As he did with Paul Dano and Billy Kay in L.I.E., Cuesta proves a master with his young cast, coaxing memorable performances from Weizenbaum, Camacho and Donovan. But he is also able to evince superlative work from the adults as well, particularly from Renner, Sciorra, Roache, and Atkinson.
Rating: A - MPAA Rating: R for some violence and sexual content involving minors, and for language Running time: 94 mins.