There's nothing sugar-coated about adolescence as it's depicted in the films of Michael Cuesta. In 2001's "L.I.E.," a 15-year-old is confronted with a recently deceased mother, an incarcerated father and his own burgeoning sexuality, while a sexual predator offers him stability and friendship.
Cuesta's second feature, the disturbing, perceptive drama "12 and Holding," similarly tackles tough issues confronting young people. Arresting in its use of suspense, humor and finely observed character details, the film homes in on an especially treacherous part of childhood, the passage into adolescence. Cuesta and screenwriter Anthony S. Cipriano consistently keep the audience on edge as a group of tweens are thrust from the comfort of innocence into the darkness of experience.
Rudy and Jacob Carges (both played by Conor Donovan) are identical twins in a leafy suburb who could not be more different from each other. Rudy is athletic and aggressive, a confident boy who walks with a strut and doesn't back down from anything. Jacob wears a hockey goalie's mask to cover the large, cranberry-colored birthmark that covers the left side of his face. He's full of worry, acutely attuned to the subtle preference his parents show for Rudy.
These are otherwise average kids who ride bikes and climb trees. Their best friends are Leonard (Jesse Camacho), a large boy who takes his obesity for granted, and Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), the precocious half-Asian daughter of a distracted therapist mother (Annabella Sciorra) and absent father. Already vulnerable, the group is shocked by a crime that kills Rudy and injures Leonard.
The surviving trio respond in different ways. Jacob feels shut out by the overwhelming grief that shakes his parents (Linus Roache and Jayne Atkinson) and burrows into an at first hateful, then strangely empathetic relationship with one of the boys responsible for Rudy's death. Malee, desperate for a male figure in her life, develops a crush on one of her mother's patients, Gus (Jeremy Renner), a kindly construction worker suffering from depression. Leonard loses his sense of taste after the accident and embraces the nutrition and exercise guides he's given by a concerned PE coach, leading to a showdown with his overweight mother (Marcia Debonis), who feels rejected.
Part of the film's artistry is the way Cipriano and Cuesta portray the parents. They're as lost as their children, struggling to connect but dangerously out of touch. Cuesta's direction focuses on the kids, but there is understanding in the way the parents' futile -- sometimes harmful -- attempts to help their offspring play out.
As with "L.I.E.," the performances by the younger actors are first-rate, especially Donovan's rendering of Rudy and Jacob, giving each his own physical bearing and distinct behavior. The adults are equally good and Cuesta's development of a reliable core of supporting players -- Debonis, Bruce Altman and Adam LeFevre appear in both films -- and his ability to draw out terrific performances illustrates his respect for actors. Renner is remarkable as Gus, both in his gentle, awkward scenes with young Weizenbaum and in a devastating monologue he delivers to Sciorra.
The refreshing part of the film is its lack of condescension toward its characters and the audience. As uncomfortable as it is to see the kids plunged into risky situations, it's always handled intelligently and without exploitation. "12 and Holding" is smart, compassionate filmmaking that captures both the intricacies and the tragedy of contemporary adolescence.
`12 and Holding'
MPAA rating: R for some violence and sexual content involving minors, and for language
An IFC Films release. Director Michael Cuesta. Producers Cuesta, Leslie Urdang, Brian Bell, Jenny Schweitzer. Screenplay Anthony S. Cipriano. Director of photography Romeo Tirone. Editors Kane Platt, Eric Carlson. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
In selected theaters.