The onset of adolescence is usually a troubling time for kids, so imagine if, when you were twelve years old, some bullying went too far and one of your best friends was killed in a treehouse fire? As the safe haven of your childhood burns down, so goes your innocence.
In Michael Cuesta's 12 and Holding, this is exactly what happens. Conor Donovan (the young version of Matt Damon in The Departed) plays a pair of twins, one of whom, Jacob, has a large purple birthmark on one side of his face. It's this mark that causes the brothers to get harassed, and when two bullies threaten to destroy their treehouse, the tougher sibling, Rudy, protects their fort by camping out with the boys' obese friend Leonard (Jesse Camacho, who played Andrew Giuliani in Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story). Only, the kids fall asleep, and so when the bullies toss a Molotov cocktail through the window, they are caught unaware. Leonard escapes, Rudy does not.
Rudy's death forever transforms Jacob, Leonard, and their friend Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum, Memoirs of a Geisha), putting them on new paths of development. Leonard loses his sense of smell when he falls from the treehouse, and no longer being able to taste his food makes his family's nonstop eating less appealing. A tough, well-meaning coach (Bruce Altman, also in Cuesta's L.I.E.) encourages him to get in shape so he can play football when he gets to high school, and Leonard takes to the program with gusto. Pretty soon, he's a fanatic about it, trying to get his gluttonous parents and siblings to join in. It's the only semi-satirical element of the movie, and maybe a smidgen too exaggerated, but Camacho manages to pull off the well-meaning extremism in a way that is sympathetic and not laughable.
For Malee, her issues are also focused on her body. She has just started menstruating, and she's fascinated by what is going on inside her. Her parents are divorced and her mother (Annabella Sciorra, "The Sopranos") is so wrapped up in her career as a therapist, she is blind to her own daughter's problems. Waiting at her mom's office, Malee meets one of her patients, Gus (Jeremy Renner, North Country). Gus is a former firefighter who was traumatized by his job and is trying to get over what happened. Gus is nice to Malee, and she develops a crush on him. She senses his sadness, and thinks that if he falls in love with her, both of them will fill the holes in their respective lives. Cuesta and screenwriter Anthony S. Cipriano stand on their most perilous cliff edge with this story line, as Malee uses her budding sexuality to push the issue to a breaking point. Yet, they handle it with grace, so that the audience is not uncomfortable and the characters are treated fairly and not exploited. The confrontation is touching and honest.
The darkest story is about the surviving twin, Jacob. With his brother gone, his feelings of being a disappointment to his parents become amplified. He has lost his best friend and protector, the one person in his life who did not make him feel abnormal, and he blames the boys who caused the accident for ruining his life. He visits them in jail and promises his revenge, but when the life of one boy takes a tragic turn, Jacob becomes friends with the remaining, Kenny (Michael Fuchs), the main instigator of the bullying. He has to decide which is stronger, the urge for revenge or his compassion. Either choice will ensure that Jacob will stop being a boy and become a man, probably faster than he was supposed to.
Cuesta and Cipriano maintain a firm control of the three parallel story lines, directing their characters through tough choices to reach the proper conclusions. The parents also play a strong role in the script, being just as confused by the children's changes as the kids are. Though the parents want to help, the filmmakers understand that the preteens must go through much of it on their own, and so the older folks must remain caught up in their own issues. Not everything ends happily, but the outcomes are all believable.
12 and Holding would be nothing without its excellent child actors. All three are convincing in their roles, and Zoe Weizenbaum in particular is a revelation. She has a natural way on camera, with the occasional tic that would seem forced in an older actor but comes across here as instinctual. Conor Donovan is also fantastic, giving both twins a distinct personality that extends beyond vocal delivery. Donovan even carries himself differently, standing straight and proud as Rudy and withdrawing into himself as Jacob.
12 and Holding is an unflinching look at the perils of adolescence in the world today. While an extraordinary event pushes the children into uncommon circumstances, the film maintains its credibility, portraying rites of passage that actually engender change rather than restore the status quo. As a viewer, my heart went out to the kids, and I got completely wrapped up in their struggle. It's hard at times but 12 and Holding is worth the effort.