A group of three friends, aged twelve, suddenly need to grow up faster than their parents in this engaging study of suburban Middle America by director Michael Cuesta. Cuesta wrote, produced, and directed the 2001 psychological portrait L.I.E. and directed five episodes of Six Feet Under. His recognizably sensitive and offbeat style shines once again in Twelve and Holding. At the heart of this story lie unexpected consequences as twin brothers’ real and perceived differences take them, their family, and their circle of friends into paths of raw, honest self-reflection and decision-making.
Jacob Carges (Conor Donovan) is introverted, hesitant, and painfully self-conscious. Born with a large birthmark covering half of his face, he first appears on camera wearing a hockey mask, in the fashion of Nightmare on Elm Street monster Freddy Kruger; the mask both disguises and disfigures, but also will speak a symbolic truth. Jacob has suffered a lifetime of living in the shadows of his athletic, charismatic, extroverted twin brother Rudy. When Rudy dies in a fire, Jacob pulls close to his best friends, two fellow misfit kids. Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum) is being raised by her psychotherapist mother (Annabella Sciorra) and, in misguided fashion, seeks her absent father by becoming precociously sexual. Pal Leonard (Jesse Camacho) is drowning in his own morbid obesity, a condition his over-controlling mother is terrified to release him from. Leonard never guessed what would come when he locks his mother in the family basement to force her into a weight-losing healthy diet.
As has been remarked about Hedda Gabler, when a gun is brought on-stage, the audience knows it will be used. Cuesta puts his gun to multiple practical and symbolic uses. As each seeming whim of will manifests a character’s underlying personality trait, childish games crystallize into seriously adult, tragically inevitable actions. The excellent casting and acting, the strong script and subtle plotting build into a carefully crafted roller coaster ride; each sudden dip and sharp turn builds to a consistent and sustained emotional peak. As three parallel plots weave into the primary one, the performance by Jeremy Renner, as Gus Maitland (mother’s trauma patient and daughter’s love interest), emerges as the linchpin, which both ties it all together and for whose sake salvation makes sense.
Not since Lolita, or perhaps Taxi Driver, have adolescent children been more adult-like in their complexity and moral dilemmas. Twelve and Holding is remarkable for its teenaged talents’ ensemble performance. The atmospheric, strange intimacy of Twelve and Holding calls to mind the mood set in Julian Po through Christian Slater’s performance as the eponymous intimate stranger to himself. As each of these characters finds a path to his or her own "otherness," the heartbreaking and endearing vision of the fragility of the human condition washes over friend and foe alike. Twelve and Holding is likely to leave the moviegoer reassessing his or her own life, wondering about their own roads not taken.