Being a kid is awkward and awful, but not in the stick-your-penis-in-a-pie way and certainly not the Peter Pan way. Situations that you can't even fathom happen ad nauseum from ages 11 to 19 on account of wild hormones. After that, the consensus would be to consult some sort of psychiatrist. Hollywood has somehow turned all these stories and occurrences into redemptive stories where every transgression is purely sexual and where things aren't fully blamed on anyone. Even if someone is blamed, the blame is nonchalant and patched up with a simple hug.Michael Cuesta
announced himself in 2001 with the vicious and viciously underrated drama L.I.E., which offered a mind-blowing performance from Brian Cox as an aged pedophile and a young, strikingly good Paul Dano as the young poet who befriends him. If the film had any real flaw, it was that it was too stiff; things seemed to structured for a story that was so amorphous and daring. Article continues below
Cuesta now returns packing fire and ravaging humor with Twelve and Holding, an unyieldingly dark look at adolescence and neglect. It starts easy: four kids, all at age 12, sit and watch fireworks at a neighborhood block party. There's Rudy and Jacob (both played by amazing newcomer Conor Donovan
), twin brothers to a pair of steady-as-she-goes parents. Their only physical distinguishing trait is a large, purple birthmark on Jacob's face. Then there's Leonard (Jesse Camacho
), the terribly overweight offspring of two fat-and-loving-it parents (mom: Marcia Debonis, dad: Tom McGowan). Lastly, there's sweet Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum
), who tries to make the most of a psychiatrist mother (Annabella Sciorra
) and a no-show dad.
Their lives get tossed when Rudy is accidentally burned alive during a prank. Suddenly, Leonard wants to lose weight, Malee gets the hots for one of her mom's patients (stunning Jeremy Renner
) and Jacob begins to take out his rage over his brother's death by visiting the kid who's responsible in a juvenile detention center. None of their parents are interested or really take notice of this behavior. Leonard's mother (Debonis works miracles with a tough role) is downright opposed to her son's new found love for health; he refuses to eat any of her fried chicken and opts for apples and salad instead. Malee begins a friendship with the patient and begins to obsess about him and his favorite song, Blue Öyster Cult's "Burning for You," which is used in a terrific scene not unlike the way "Hey You" was used in last year's The Squid and the Whale. Jacob begins to befriend the prankster, but things take a major dark turn for all three.
Twelve and Holding encapsulates everything one could hope for from a sophomore effort. Cuesta's style has become more defined and, with ample help from cinematographer Romeo Tirone, his imagery has become even more stirring and efficient. His work with actors has become a thing of beauty: all the child actors are fantastic and the supporting cast gives a resonant tone to the children's world. Cuesta, working from a remarkable script from first-timer Anthony Cipriano, makes sure to define the parents but makes them the ghostly apparitions that the kids see them as. When Leonard finally takes action with his mother, the way he deals with her is still in the way of forced neglect. Squirming in their seats and foreheads cringed, parents might find themselves rushing home from Cuesta's tarnished scrapbook of forgotten embarrassment to spend time with their tykes.