Tween Hell and High Water

Washington City Paper | June 12, 2006
The evil that boys do isn’t a result of supernatural beings in Twelve and Holding, director Michael Cuesta’s sometimes over-the-top follow-up to his tragedy-ridden first film, 2001’s pedophilia-themed L.I.E. You might pity the poor tweens trapped in television writer Anthony Cipriano’s script, though to continue to do so for the whole movie will require a significant suspension of disbelief. How many soap-operatic experiences can even a bunch of adolescent boys go through in 94 minutes?

As Twelve and Holding begins, twin brothers Rudy and Jacob (both played by Conor Donovon) are running to the safety of their treehouse, chased by two bullies. The brothers are physically identical, except that Jacob has a birthmark covering one side of his face, which he prefers to hide behind a hockey mask. In terms of personality, though, they’re, yup, opposites: Rudy’s the outspoken fighter; Jacob’s the guy who would rather be quietly invisible.

So it’s Rudy who throws a bucket of urine on their tormentors, prompting the tougher one, Kenny (Michael C. Fuchs), to threaten, “You are dead!” And only Rudy and obese friend Leonard (Jesse Camacho) later go off in the middle of the night to protect the treehouse. As promised, the thugs in training return—with Molotov cocktails. The boys are sleeping at the time. Leonard escapes with only a head injury that takes away his sense of smell and taste. Rudy is engulfed by flames and dies.

The death sets the emotionally knotted Jacob, Leonard, and another close friend, Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), spinning in radical directions as their parents react with equal extremity. Jacob absorbs the anger of his mother (Jayne Atkinson) instead of the it-was-an-accident acceptance of his father (Linus Roache) and begins to visit and intimidate the detained Kenny. Leonard, no longer enjoying his usual fatty diet and given nutrition and exercise books by his concerned gym teacher, takes to eating apples and jogging—and tries to force his lifestyle change on his grossly overweight parents. The precocious Malee, who’s desperate for her absent father and not given much attention by her therapist mother (Annabella Sciorra), develops an obsessive crush on Gus (Jeremy Renner), one of her mother’s adult patients, going to awkward and ultimately shocking lengths to get him to requite her puppy love.

Cipriano isn’t subtle in driving home Twelve and Holding’s theme of how a tragedy singes all of those who come near it. There’s the accident, the fact that Gus is a haunted former firefighter, and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ for You” rather ridiculously woven into the plot. But the film really falters whenever Leonard’s parents (Marcia DeBonis and Tom McGowan) show up: Both look like full-grown Oompa-Loompas, and they’re constantly shown eating piles of junk food and reacting furiously to Leonard’s desire to get fit.

Murders, suicide, pedophilia, assisted homicide, and, oh, a gas leak are included to move things along, too. Yet the film’s piling of tragedy upon tragedy is undercut every time Cuesta and Cipriano ask us to make fun of an adult rather than empathize with a child. The idea, presumably, is that parents just don’t understand. Twelve and Holding’s script is eye-rolling, even if its characters’ predicaments are heartbreaking.

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