The central character of "Twelve" is White Mike (Chace Crawford), who has never smoked a cigarette or had a drink, nor has he taken a hit off of joint. And yet he's one of the best known drug dealers amongst wealthy Manhattan teenagers. Mike is himself only seventeen-years-old and the son of a restaurant owner, but ever since cancer claimed the life of his mother, he has been adrift, unwilling to finish school and lost in a sea of memories and nihilistic philosophical viewpoints. He has no good reason to be doing what he's doing - he's just doing it. He wants to seem more respectable to his best friend since childhood, Molly (Emma Roberts), so he lies about his profession on a regular basis and always makes an excuse for not being able to take her to where he works. This, of course, makes him even more of a loser than his clients. The thing is, he has probably known this all along.
Through another drug dealer, Lionel (Curtis Jackson), Mike is supplied with a new liquid drug known as Twelve, which is apparently a cross between cocaine and ecstasy. A frequent partier named Jessica (Emily Meade) tries some just for the hell of it. It's an amazing high. It makes her think about how in school she memorized and delivered the entire Gettysburg Address. She becomes hooked. She starts spending, and soon runs out of, all her money. She asks her sleazy mother (Ellen Barkin) for more. She refuses. We don't follow Jessica all throughout the film, although we see enough of her to know the depths to which she will sink for a fix. It's all very sad. And it's appalling. As is the case with real drug addicts, you don't know whether to feel sorry for her or give up on her entirely.
Numerous other subplots weave throughout the film. Mike's cousin, who introduced him to drug dealing, was murdered in a drug trade gone wrong. All evidence points to Mike's best friend, Hunter (Philip Ettinger), as the shooter. We also meet Sara (Esti Ginzburg), commonly referred to as the hottest girl in school; she manipulates people, usually boys, to get what she wants. She admits this while simultaneously using her feminine wiles on young Chris (Rory Culkin), hoping he will make his parents' luxury house available for her eighteenth birthday party. Chris agrees, not because his parents just happen to be away on vacation, but only because he desperately wants to lose his virginity, and with any luck, it will be with Sara. In the meantime, Chris has to contend with the unexpected arrival of his AWOL brother, Claude (Billy Magnussen), a raging psychopath and drug abuser with an unhealthy fixation on bladed weapons.
The film, based on the novel by Nick McDonell and directed by Joel Schumacher, might at first glance seem chaotic and overstuffed with characters. I was bothered by this until, about halfway through, I saw what I had been missing: This movie isn't about the characters themselves so much as the world they inhabit, one defined not by laws or morals or judgment, but simply by instant, primal gratification. They're all young. They're all privileged. They feel entitled and have no responsibilities. They don't consider the consequences of their actions. Their thoughts run no deeper than sexual conquests and where to score some really good pot. So misguided are these kids that one wonders where their families stand. Are they blissfully unaware of what their children are doing, or are they too occupied with being rich to take notice? It's a moot point - for these teens, adults simply don't register.
A tragedy near the end of the film brings this idea home. We understand, with depressing certainty, that these kids have been failed by those meant to guide and protect them since day one. I'm not just referring to their parents; I'm also referring to their teachers, their elders, their friends, their extended family, and society in general. They've been corrupted by the extravagances allowed by their social statures, which is to say they value nothing and have no alternate frame of reference.
A narration, provided by Kiefer Sutherland, is included, although its effectiveness is open for debate. On the one hand, narrations in general serve mostly as an excuse for unnecessary exposition. On the other hand, with so many characters and so many subplots worked into the space of ninety-three minutes, I'm not sure we would have learned everything we needed to know without a little exposition. Sutherland speaks in the third person, and yet we have a clear sense of which character he's describing, their states of mind - anger, confusion, hate, shallowness, disorientation - made abundantly clear. From Mike, we're made aware of his belief that no one needs anything, that it's all about what people want. His clients want everything. What does he want? The ending of "Twelve" suggests that within him stirs the possibility of hope, but considering the life he has led, considering what it cost him to lead that life, hope may not spring eternal.