It's not quite 13, but Twelve and Holding is another indie flick that digs into muck of preadolescence looking for the darkest bits. Director Michael Cuesta brings us a less-endearing Stand by Me, stripped of nostalgia and a cute sound track, a coming-of-age story that replaces fond remembrances with snide humor and gloomy conclusions.
At times, Cuesta's movie is an astute portrait of the limbo between childhood and adulthood; at other points, it rings completely, laughably false. Cuesta's successful moments are mostly due to writer Anthony Cipriano's reading of young emotions, played to perfection by a talented young group of unknowns.
The story follows a trio of friends mourning the loss of their fourth pal, who died at the hands of a couple hooligans who threw a Molotov cocktail at the kids' tree house. The fire kills 12-year-old Jacob's twin brother Rudy (Conor Donovan plays both). With a wine-colored birthmark on his face, Jacob is the less bold and athletic of the brothers, and, in his mind, the less-favored son. While his parents wallow in an emotional mess of guilt and anger, Jacob decides to visit the killers in juvenile hall for some calculated taunting. Through the thick plexi-glass partition, he torments them with hate-filled fantasies of how he will get revenge. The attempts at payback make for some of the movie's truest emotions. When Donovan drops Jacob's meekness and lashes out, it's with deep-seated rage.
Leonard (Jesse Camacho), on the other hand, takes Rudy's death as an opportunity to learn to live right. The overweight boy escaped the fire, but his injuries resulted in a loss of his sense of smell, and therefore appetite. Leonard starts to exercise, and attempts to get his morbidly obese family to follow him, refusing their offerings of lard-laden foods. The fat-kid-slims-down sequences are funny, but in a cartoony way that seems out of place among the film's darker tales.
The third friend, Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), is more self-destructive. Her single-mother (Annabella Sciorra) is too clinical and entrenched in her work as a psychologist to help her daughter grieve. Malee is too independent and bitter to ask her mom for help. The wide-eyed 12-year-old turns to one of her mother's adult patients, a troubled loner (Jeremy Renner), who accepts her friendship. Malee's emotional immaturity blossoms into a dangerous obsession.
Twelve and Holding fails, however, when Cuesta and Cipriano trade empathy for shock: Jacob's wrath against his brothers' killers teeters on turning bloody; Leonard goes to extreme measures to slim his mom down, and the result is nearly fatal; Malee tries to seduce her mom's patient. The characters' conclusions are too extreme. Real adolescent turmoil is subtler, buried deeper in the psyche.
Cuesta's look at preteen angst uncovers not comic darkness or dramatic tragedy, but oversimplified horror and sensationalism.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.