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By Matthew Sorrento | June 20, 2006

Many a filmmaker goes for a “value pack” in the form of a multi-story ensemble, too often with less the value. For every “Short Cuts” there’s a number of misfires like last year’s purported masterpiece, “Crash,” which had only one worthy thread – featuring an astonishing Matt Dillon – weaving though strands of preachy over-indulgence.

Director Michael Cuesta (“L.I.E.”) and writer Anthony Cipriano risk over-dramatizing in their multi-narrative film, “Twelve and Holding,” which bravely offers a canvas to each of the film’s preteen characters. Cuesta and Cipriano let these characters develop through true drama, while such performers are usually limited to melodrama. (For every “To Kill a Mockingbird” there’s a slew of kiddy adventures like “The Goonies.”) With its mature treatment of the young, “Twelve and Holding” rests heavily on the performers’ abilities, which points to the film’s mixed success and shortcomings.

The 12-year-old friends consist of Malee (Zoe Wiezenbaum, “Memoirs of a Geisha”), Leonard (Jesse Camacho), and Jacob (Conor Donovan). While each eventually centers his or her own narrative, the pack first appears together battling bullies. Revenge seems sweet when Jacob and his twin brother drench their nemeses with piss from a treehouse, until the bullies return at night with Molotov cocktails. After the bullies cause the accidental death of Jacob’s twin brother, the film is ready-made for moral sentiment – until the event becomes a launching pad for legitimate character development.

The coping stage inspires all three to step toward maturity, for which they are, naturally, not quite ready. While visiting her mother at her psychiatrist’s office, Malee meets Gus (Jeremy Renner), a construction worker and her mother’s patient. His geniality and her precocity allow them to connect, and Malee soon finds herself infatuated with him. Though Cuesta has her over-effecting a bit, the sassy Wiezenbaum seems comfortable mixing it up with, and at times even charming, an older guy. Renner is a receptive companion, with a lot of help from his boyish but hardened looks (think of a younger, rougher Clive Owen). A credible overachiever, Malee eavesdrops on Gus’s therapy sessions for intimate material (as Woody does to get Julia Roberts in “Everyone Says I Love You” – though this age-inappropriate situation is innocent and not at all creepy.)

Her friend Leonard, an overweight boy situated in a happily obese family, addresses his health to the dismay of his parents. (Thankfully, this “fat kid” and land being taken over by moguls are the film’s only similarities to “The Goonies.”) Leonard’s newfound joys at the crunch of an apple and his ability to jog beyond one block make for simple viewing pleasure in what could have been an awkward treatment. An experienced actor, Jesse Camacho delivers the strongest performance of the young cast. His command risks over-maturing Leonard at times, but finds the right touches to ground him at his age level.

Most affected by the tragedy, Jacob plays more like an authorial mouthpiece. Unlike his twin brother Rudy, he wears a Mark of Cain (a sizable facial birthmark), and the story makes clumsy use of the device. And unlike Leonard – and to an extent, Malee – he finds himself facing his fears in situations that feel more idealistic for the story than innate to his character and situation.

With two of the three engines effective, “Twelve and Holding” unfortunately breaks down by trying to wrap up its problems too neatly. In this vision of early adolescence, the script throws in solutions when the preteens are still feeling out their issues. It’s quite a shame, since “Holding’s” young actors were dealt a denouement unworthy of their talents.

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