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The Children’s Hour: Michael Cuesta’s “12 and Holding”

The Children's Hour: Michael Cuesta's "12 and Holding"

Though his films tend to have an air of rawness and “brutal honesty,” Michael Cuesta, judging by his first feature, “L.I.E.” and his latest, “Twelve and Holding,” seems more interested in creating angsty tween soap operas than surveying what it’s really like to be a prepubescent. Cuesta treats the humiliations and emotional minefields of childhood from an admirably passionate subjectivity (like these kids, these films are thoroughly immersed in their own solipsistic pain), yet he isn’t able to balance it with any sort of adult emotional insight. “L.I.E.,” through Brian Cox‘s conflicted neighborhood pedophile, hinted at extraordinary empathy; the film’s impact, however, was diluted immeasurably by its tired stabs at “excavating” the dark underbelly of suburbia.

“Twelve and Holding,” similarly focused on the psychological hang-ups of sexually emergent preteens, is more fluid and assured, yet it’s too predetermined by its wildly overwrought melodramatics. With an ever compounding litany of issues plaguing its young characters (obesity, confused sexuality, divorce, and death) it could conceivably make a compelling young adult novel, yet its R rated images are mildly exploitatively geared toward an adult audience. There are no small moments, little room for nuance; gas leaks, blazing fires, exploding handguns, all meant to signify the confusion and desperation of youth. By the time it has reached its cathartic-shock conclusion, it’s become a “Taxi Driver” on training wheels, ludicrously excessive in its rain-drenched and blood-soaked dramatics.

Yet as with so many of its genre, in which coming-of-age inherently equals knowledge-of-death, from “Stand by Me” to “My Girl” to “Rivers’ Edge,” the film is not about its characters’ individuality. One kid stands in for all; Anthony Cipriano‘s script seems to be saying, “Yes, this is what it’s like to be on the verge of adulthood.” In the most innocuous of the film’s three distinct narrative threads, the grossly overweight Leonard (an admirably subtle, dignified Jesse Camacho) struggles with his body issues and turns to dieting and exercise, much to the chagrin of his plus-size parents. While Cipriano can’t help but amp up Jesse’s story into an overbaked retaliation chamber drama with a plot turn right out of the 1996 Kevin PollakJamie Lee Curtis vehicle “House Arrest,” the boy’s struggles with his own health and parental disconnect make it more palatable than the exploits of his two neighborhood friends: Jacob (Conor Donovan), who deals with the horrific death of his twin brother, Rudy, by commiserating with the tough kid in juvenile hall who accidentally killed him, and Malee, who opens the film by boasting that she “began menstruating this morning” and then goes on to nurse a hypersexual crush on the local firefighter turned construction worker, Gus (Jeremy Renner), who is a patient of her divorced therapist mom’s (Annabella Sciorra).

These psychoses are all comprehensible, yet the manner in which the kids act upon them rapidly pushes the film from the exaggerated to the absurd. Whereas Jacob, already saddled with a purple birthmark splashed across half of his face like war paint, deals with the trauma of losing his twin by toying with the idea of revenge, Malee’s parallel journey depicts emerging female sexuality as decidedly predatory. Young Zoe Weizenbaum remarkably conveys all the conflicted tremulousness of Malee’s full-throttle maturation, but Malee, troublingly the film’s representative young female, expresses a fearless carnality that seems far too precocious, even disrobing in front of her obsession/father figure Gus as a means of provocation.

Cuesta treats the kids with respect, yet in true Amerindie fashion, the same doesn’t quite apply to the parents, who are reliably dispatched with that odd distancing effect that’s supposed to stand in for childhood subjectivity but which is often just lazy shortcutting. In so doing, the film falters greatly, at times approaching Solondz territory, especially in its grotesque canted framing of Leonard’s fat family as they gorge themselves on heaping piles of pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Meanwhile, Jacob’s father (Linus Roache, furiously trying to hide his British accent and coming off like a New York City cab driver) and mother (the wonderful Jayne Atkinson) only express the pain of their loss through low-angle, bug-eyed fits, before abruptly adopting an African-American foster child to take Rudy’s top bunk. It’s difficult to take the kids’ plight seriously if the adults aren’t allowed their own decency; it’s a tonal imbalance, between hyper-real satire and sympathetic naturalism, that the film never quite reconciles. For example, when Leonard decides to improve his health by taking up jogging, Cuesta can’t help but underscore his sweaty workout with jokey, audience-courting guitar rock. Not only undermining his efforts, this shows that Cuesta, for all his flirting with the true pain of adolescence, is too intent on pleasing his audience to truly get to its deepest, darkest places. At its heart “Twelve and Holding” is very much like the kids: it just wants to be loved.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and a contributor to Film Comment.]

A scene from Michael Cuesta’s “Twelve and Holding.” Photo provided by IFC Films.

Take 2
By Kristi Mitsuda

Watching “Twelve and Holding,” I felt the same sense of engaged disorientation as I did upon seeing Michael Cuesta’s first film, “L.I.E.” Though both features begin with sinister undertones seemingly guaranteed to deliver a sordid unraveling, these rumblings shiftingly give way to something cuddlier, an unexpected spin on the adolescent coming-of-age movie. This tonal duality raises some rather compelling questions: does it cop out on the provocative darkness it portends? Or does its ultimate softness make it more radical than the damning pessimism and finality of a Larry Clark film?

Compounding this narrative unease is the blunt hardness, in this case amongst the film’s free-cussing, outwardly tough, twelve year-olds, that rubs up against the grand gestures and violent retributions that infuse Cuesta and writer Anthony Cipriano‘s tales with mythic undertones. Opening with a prank gone awry, “Twelve and Holding”‘s protagonist, Jacob (the name itself conjuring larger dimensions with its biblical reference), loses his identical twin brother to a fire that seems foretold in his skin, the birthmark that masks half his face resembling burn scars. Contrast this with the supremely modern description of overweight Leonard’s turn towards better nutrition following the accident which leaves him alive but lacking his sense of smell and taste, and the utterly affecting way in which we see how his similarly obese mother and father come to regard his resultant renunciation of all foods fried (the textures of apples is more appealing) as an affront and rejection of their parenting.

Though the film never completely coheres, Cuesta’s precarious balancing act succeeds, as did his debut, aided by excellent casting (the young Zoe Weizenbaum as Malee, in particular, astoundingly pulls off a nearly impossible role), and a unique configuration that triggers reverberations which continue long after an initial viewing, leaving the spectator to contemplate the scattered messiness of what it means to become and be an adult.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]

A scene from Michael Cuesta’s “Twelve and Holding.” Photo provided by IFC Films.

Take 3
By James Crawford

“Twelve and Holding” most reminds me of “American Beauty,” both in the way it uses the suburbs to make straw man observations about Americana–and that my enjoyment of the film is inversely proportional to the time spent thinking about it. Michael Cuesta’s film most resembles a kiddie soap opera: translucent archetypes and sensationalist plot threads hastily knitted together, no doubt holdover techniques from his work in the admittedly fine HBO drama, “Six Feet Under.” The heft and complexity accrued over the weeks of a television drama make sudden revelations more palatable; the same in film is merely sloppy. Within the first ten minutes of “Twelve and Holding,” Cuesta kills off little Rudy in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable, and then quickly, breathlessly runs through a litany of incredible (in the original sense of the word) reactions to that elemental tragedy, no doubt trying to bypass the brain’s intellectual centers and appeal its unthinking, visceral core.

So I’ll cop to initially admiring the film’s unique mix of tragedy and comedy (not to mention the emotional connection Cuesta achieves through direct address to the camera) but the more I cottoned on to the film’s cheap shots–Leonard’s morbidly obese family and gluttonous dinner table dynamic, which are used to lambaste quintessentially American over-consumption; Rudy/Jacob’s mother and father, whose conflicting attitudes to Rudy’s murderers serve as emblems of conservative bloodlust and liberal impotence, respectively; Malee’s psychiatrist mother who is congenitally unable to tend to her own child’s neuroses, thus undermining the cult of psychoanalysis–the more intellectually and morally bankrupt “Twelve and Holding” seemed to be. That’s something of a shame, because Cuesta does a disservice to a preternaturally talented trio of young actors, particularly Zoe Weizenbaum. Her precocious and naive infatuation for Jeremy Renner’s emotionally troubled firefighter is nothing short of astonishing. Through these performers, Cuesta could have mined the rich terrain of troubled early adolescence; as it stands, “Twelve and Holding” barely scratches the surface.
[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]

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