I didn’t know what to expect when I let Netflix send me 12 and Holding. The AI that determines recommendations in Netflix isn’t as sophisticated as, say, the one on Yahoo’s Launch. Netflix recommends more based on what is in your queue rather than movies you rated highly. Usually I turn down the recommendations, but decided that this one seemed interesting enough to try. As with Happy Endings (another movie for which I had mixed expectations), 12 and Holding surprised me with its quality.
The story focuses on 3 12 year olds and their families. Rudy and Jacob (both played by Conor Donovan) are twins. Rudy is accidentally killed by a pair of bullies who throw Molotov cocktails at his tree house. Rudy was the protective and brotherly twin; Jacob was treated differently because of a birthmark covering the left side of his face. Ninety percent of the film’s action occurs after this event. Jacob tries to come to terms with his parents’ grief and the belief that he was not favored because of his birthmark. Malee Chung (Zoe Weizenbaum) is the only girl of the group. Her first appearance has her trying to deal with her first menstrual bleed. Her mother is a psychiatrist who spends all of her home time, seemingly, yelling into the phone at her ex-husband. Leonard (Jesse Camacho) rounds out the trio literally and figuratively—he is grossly overweight when the film begins. This is all I will say in way of summary. How the movie traces each of these children’s journeys through a little less than a year is the reason to watch it and I don’t want to give too much away.
Director Michael Cuesta (who also directed the film L.I.E. with its unflinching look at family disintegration and pedophilia) is completely unsentimental. A film about a group of 12 year olds is at first glance something that would tend to be silly or sentimental. I can think of no other film that covers a group of kids like this where the movie was more for adults than kids, but where kids could also enjoy it fully. This is not in the Goonies vein at all. There is humor and adventure, but the humor is very dark and the adventure more realistic and driven by emotional need than Spielburgian lust for treasure. The way Mr. Cuesta frames scenes and uses camera angles that force a perspective that is closer to the way a 12 year old would see things (they are much shorter than the adults, so many shots show the adults almost as giants) creates a kind of intimacy that at times can be a little embarrassing and voyeuristic. However, it is this intimacy into this world that makes 12 and Holding worth watching.
Twelve is the perfect age for the subject matter. I went through puberty early, so for me it would be more like 11 and holding, but most kids (males anyway—and this is covered since Malee starts her period as the movie begins) only begin puberty at 12. These children are almost young adults and the way they behave, speak, react, and plan are all a mix of the imagination of childhood mixed with the uncomfortable pragmatism of adulthood.
Jacob has feelings of guilt and shame over his brother’s death since he wasn’t there and could have been; all of that is mixed with feelings of estrangement from his grieving parents. Malee is trying out her sexuality (not sex, just sexuality) like Lolita, but without the same results. Leonard is dealing with being overweight and fighting what amounts to a culture war with his family over it. Jacob’s case is rarer, but the feelings and expressions of his friends are common among children that age.
This is not an amateur film, though it is independent. The image control is as tight as any movie I’ve seen (I compare it to the control of imagery that Jane Campion created in In the Cut). I’ve erased about three lists of imagery that weave such a tight movie, because any list would give too much away. Suffice it to say (and this is rare for this reviewer who tends to give away almost all of the plot in a standard review) it is beautifully controlled film.
I mention only one caution for parents who are wary of foul language in their preteens. When the kids are together minus adults, which is slightly more than half of the film, they use the standard four and five letter words common to adults. The way the kids use this language as easily as adults do adds authenticity to the film. It is the only caution I give.
The quality of filmmaking and acting, especially for the three young adults, are exceptional. The credits role to a song from R.E.M.’s strange cd Up called “Why Not Smile.” Given when this happens, and the general emotion in the film, it will be difficult to follow this command; however, as you have time to digest it, a smile should follow.
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