Judge Jennifer Malkowski remembers more giggly sleepovers and fewer episodes of sex and violence from her time being 12.
The end of innocence is just the beginning.
12 and Holding is a surprising little film about that limbo year between childhood and adolescence. What starts as a Mean Creek-esque story about children's cruelty turns into something more complex, and maybe more chilling. Though not perfect, the film offers some truly tough lessons about maturity and about the examples parents set for their kids.
Facts of the Case
In the wake of his twin brother's violent death, Jacob (Conor Donovan) and his friends Malee (Zoë Weizenbaum) and Leonard (Jesse Camacho) cope with their own grief, their parents', and the challenges of being 12.
Those challenges are pretty formidable and different in all three cases. For Jacob, they involve reconciling with the boy who killed his twin brother and managing his mother's hatred toward that boy. Malee deals with her absentee father by pursuing a grown-up romance with an adult construction worker (Jeremy Renner). Leonard confronts his own obesity, but finds that the bigger obstacle is his parents' attitudes toward eating and toward his self-improvement plan.
In his commentary track, director Michael Cuesta attests that part of the reason he wanted to film this script was the lack of "movies about kids that are real." This is the task he and screenwriter Anthony Cipriano set for themselves, and the extent to which they succeed and fail at this reality turns out to be a good measure of the film's general quality. In the final assessment, it's the emotions and the tone that feel so real and so important in 12 and Holding, even when the dialogue and situations tend to exceed the limits of likelihood.
They don't know it, but Jacob, Malee, and Leonard are all much more mature than their parents—in some ways. Like many 12-year-olds, they can see through much of the adult bullshit that is tossed their way and they also have a real intuitive sense of their parents' shortcomings. They know enough to understand that the issues in their life are not just kids' stuff anymore; when their parents don't take them seriously, they go about solving their own problems like the mature adults they feel they are becoming. But also like most 12-year-olds, they're ultimately not as mature as they think they are—and certainly not mature enough to handle the (perhaps unrealistically) adult situations the filmmakers throw at them.
Jacob, for example, seems to feel the pressure of filling his dead brother's shoes. The twin brother, Rudy, was the tough, popular one who always looked out for Jacob, whose large facial birthmark guided him into the role of Beta twin from an early age. Jacob tries hard to be tough, visiting his brother's killer in juvenile hall and telling him about how he has plotted his murder. But once Jacob enters this adult world, threats and glares give way to the complexities of guilt and innocence, punishment and forgiveness, and the quickly unraveling concept of justice. Unable to reconcile what he knows about the killer's hard life and genuine remorse with the vengeance his mother yearns for, Jacob begins to question just what responsibility is in the situation. A brief scene with his mother a year after Rudy's death is chilling to watch, and demonstrates how careful parents should be about the values they impart to their children:
Mother: "You know, you do what you can as a parent and sometimes you
don't make the right choices, but you are my son and I love you, and I would do
anything for you. I would fight for you, I'd kill for you, I would die for
From the way she affirms her love and the violence she would commit for her child in the same breath to the dangerous phrase, "when you grow up," this grieving mother is making disastrous miscalculations about how to support her young son, and what confessions he is ready to hear.
Tied with Jacob for the film's "most disturbing story about a 12-year-old" award is Malee. Smart and precocious with a psychoanalyst for a mother, Malee truly is too mature for the boys her age. But by thinking that makes her ready for a sexual relationship with her grown-up "true love," Gus the construction worker, Malee demonstrates the palpable limits of that adolescent maturity. She meets Gus in the waiting room at her mother's office, and sees this particular patient as her injured "soul mate," in need of her attention. While Malee can parrot her mother's psychological insights, such as "90% of people's problems revolve around their inability to deal with the past," she can't see them operating in her own life. The screenplay alludes strongly to the possibility that Malee may be suffering from that inability, too, by filling the hole in her life her father left with another adult male in a different role.
Leonard's problem is more (literally) corporeal than those of his friends. After losing his ability to taste from a head trauma, the overweight boy decides it is time to adopt a healthy lifestyle of diet and exercise. Empowered by his coach, his own sheer determination, and the new reality of apples tasting the same as fried chicken, Leonard makes vast strides toward weight loss. But his personal quest highlights the epidemic of unhealthy living that dominates his household, and his efforts to change his family are met with hostility and pessimism:
Mother: "Can you imagine me running a marathon?"
This conversation, and Leonard's whole story, are maybe the most touching examples of attempts at true communication between children and parents, with Leonard gently prompting his mother to recognize what he has accomplished and take him seriously. Like the others, Leonard thinks he can handle more than he really can, and his narrative arc still demonstrates the film's operating principle that kids and adults need different kinds of support and lessons, but that they are on more equal footing than either usually suspects.
Each of the three stories has its strengths and weaknesses. Jacob's makes the biggest moral impact, but feels a bit overwritten and sometimes overacted by Donovan and Jayne Atkinson as his mother (though Michael Fuchs is perfect as the accidental killer). Malee's segment features very strong performances and the most interesting character in the film in the form of the 12-year-old seductress herself, but it advances rather slowly and comes to a conclusion that feels a little too neat for the deeply unsettling content. Leonard's story is the most fun to watch and provides some of the only lighthearted moments in the film, but in the midst of such (ironically) heavier stories, it's a little too easy to write his bit off as the comic relief.
In the end, these three tales form more of a collection of vignettes about being 12 than a cohesive whole. Though the screenplay operates on the pretext that the shocking death that begins the film unites the three series of events that follow, the audience is basically left to take that assurance of causality on faith. In the Bedroom—which could be productively compared to this film in more ways than one—presented a stunning portrait of grief and the emotions that accompany it, but 12 and Holding fails to depict that flow from one death to its many emotional and material consequences. Aside from Jacob, who is directly dealing with the fallout of the killing, neither of the other characters is strongly connected to Rudy's death or to the situations the other friends are struggling through. Maybe vignettes, rather than a single narrative, are the best way to tell these stories, but the filmmakers actually balance uncomfortably between the two strategies—unable to connect the three segments strongly, but unwilling to let the link fall away altogether.
Cuesta alternates between the mundane and the epic in his visual style. He renders the blandness of suburban life coupled with the numbing grays of grief with the dull color palette of the school or some of the kids' houses. At other times, he amps up the color and the lighting to embody the emotional intensity of the big moments of these kids' lives—as with the burning treehouse and Malee's recital. All of these images come through nicely on Genius's transfer, as does the sound. The dialogue is clear, and the blasting workout music for Leonard or Malee's repeating anthem "Burning for You" are among the nicely balanced music tracks.
Special features include a commentary track with Cuesta and one deleted scene, with optional commentary. I won't reveal any spoilers by describing the scene, which would have appeared late in the film. But it does feature the great line, delivered with a totally straight face: "Goodbye. Thanks for not pressing any charges." Cuesta's feature commentary isn't riveting, but he manages to give some good insights into his beautifully understated aesthetic style without over-talking the elegance out of it. He also discusses the Hollywood "wisdom" that one should never center a movie on child characters, because young actors will often ruin shoots with their inexperience. In a life-mirrors-art moment, Cuesta bet his production on the maturity of adolescents: his actors, Donovan, Weizenbaum, and Camacho. For the most part, his gamble pays off with performances that range from adequate to captivating.
"The movie was so much about how parents and kids struggle with the same thing. We're all kind of clueless and we're all kind of maybe wise at the same time." This summation from Cuesta's commentary is a nugget of hard-earned truth that really does expand and come alive in 12 and Holding. Parents and kids need each other. When they realize it, real connections are made. But when they don't, there's a lot of tragedy a child in that fragile twelfth year can unwittingly cause…
Guilty of unyielding maturity—sometimes unconvincingly superimposed onto children.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary by Director Michael Cuesta
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