By the time Catherine Hardwicke fashioned -- nearly 20 years later -- her young girl's coming-of-rage Thirteen with teen co-writer/actress Nikki Reed, the fixation on street credibility cast age as a barometer of social change, a means of documenting the seismic shifts of development, a reading of indeterminate value along the psychological spectrum on the road to adulthood. That's quite a lot to ask of a number.
Today's tweeners are hyper-aware. On television and film, they are sometimes portrayed as more focused individuals than the adults wandering around them. And these days, adults are everywhere, not like in Stand By Me where they existed only the margins of the unfolding events, like the grown-ups in Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip world.
LIE director Michael Cuesta returns to the awkward days of youth in Twelve & Holding, which could easily be mistaken as a prequel to Hardwicke's Thirteen. Yet Twelve & Holding's hard edges are tempered with a strong, undeniable affection for all of its characters. The film takes a hard look at its three young subjects caught up in the grips of a tragedy that forces them to stand on their own because no one around them is in any position to offer support. Both adults and children are frozen in a holding pattern, a state of arrested development that is dangerous because there is nothing juvenile about it.
Rudy and Jacob Carges (Conor Donovan) are twins, yet are as different as night and day. Rudy is athletic and headstrong, brashly all-American and old-fashioned in a way. Meanwhile, Jacob's status as the lesser of the two is made evident in the purple birthmark that covers one side of his face, a blemish he attempts to hide beneath a hockey mask. This innocent indulgence is likely one of many that the Carges' -- Jim (Linus Roache) and Ashley (Jayne Atkinson) -- allow Jacob. But when Rudy is accidentally killed in a tree house fire caused by a pair of bullies, Jacob must find a way to confront his anger and grief before it consumes him.
Jacob should be able to turn to his friends for comfort, but Malee (Zoé Weizenbaum) and Leonard (Jesse Camacho) are locked in their own struggles. Malee, the daughter of an angry divorced therapist (Annabella Sciorra), spies on her mother's patients, searching for similarly wounded souls with which to connect. When she comes across the mysteriously attractive Gus Maitland (Jeremy Renner), her passionate pursuit threatens all parties involved.
Leonard survived the tree house fire, suffering only minor injuries and the loss of his sense of taste, a well-scripted dilemma for an obese kid from an obese family. As he turns his attention to taking the tentative first steps towards bettering his own health, Leonard makes the decision that he should not take this journey alone and attempts to force his mother through extreme measures to join him.
Jacob, Malee, and Leonard share little screen time together. They are isolated in their journeys, not just from each other, but also from the adults in their lives. Each seeks a connection or approval from their parents who cannot see past their own sense of grief, hurt or loss. They perform desperate acts to endear themselves to mothers, fathers and even potential lovers. Rudy's role as de facto leader of this rag-tag pack is clearly illustrated in their aimless wandering once he is gone. They never think to reach out for one another.
Jacob, whose narrative is the most fully realized, looks beyond his parents to Kenny (Michael Fuchs), one of the bullies who killed Rudy. The relationship they forge is raw and immature, and while its conclusion contains an audience-rousing twist, the turn is inevitable and quietly devastating in the long run. It would be interesting to return to the trio 20 years from now and see if they can even stand close to the fire of these memories.
It is only after walking away from Twelve & Holding that audiences will have the chance to appreciate what Cuesta and television series writer Anthony Cipriano have crafted. Full of familiar faces, the film never strays from its center thanks, in no small part, to the satisfying work of its three young leads.
But the film is not simply about tweeners. This is a companion piece to Mike Binder's The Upside of Anger. Forgoing the booze and self-pity that fuel the rage of Joan Allen's character, Jacob, Malee and Leonard openly confront pain and loss the best they can and suffer the consequences. The upside? Maybe they will have what it takes to hold on. Grade: A