12 and Holding

| September 24, 2006

12 and Holding is a tragic coming-of-age story that strips away the expectations of security and takes a trio of young friends into shocking territory. The film starts with a familiar setup: a loner, picked on by bullies, is protected by his twin brother, who dumps a bucket of piss on the offenders from their idyllic tree house. But nothing stays safe for long: before the tree house can be torn down by construction, the bullies burn it down, not realizing that two of the kids are still inside. One–the athletic, good-looking brother–dies, and the other–an obese and depressed boy–loses his sense of taste. As for the twin’s birthmark-scarred brother, Jacob–he is lost and confused, and finds his solace in plotting a sadistic revenge on the bullies who killed his brother.
These are just set pieces for darker times: one of the bullies commits suicide in the prison–a combination of Jacob’s malicious visits and his own unfortunate encounters with the bigger bullies of juvenile hall–and the obese child, Leonard, wants so badly to help his mother get healthier that he locks her in the basement while his father is away. Their attempts to deal with the tragedy, to make life go on, only seem to make things worse–most notably in the case of Malee, their smart Asian friend, who forms an unhealthy father-figure fixation on a friendly construction worker (who has deep-seated emotional problems, to boot). All of this sounds a little over-the-top, but director Michael Cuesta (known for his work on L.I.E. and Six Feet Under) keeps the shots startling and crisp. When Jacob gets a gun and fires it, it’s not with the assured poise of a killer, it’s with the nervous fingers of a child and the recoil sends him flying backward. And by making the adults just as insecure as the children, Cuesta makes for a stifling environment, most particularly in a Christmas scene that segues between the three households and their radically different morals.
Things continue to happen, not all of them bad. Jacob winds up befriending the surviving bully, and Malee winds up saving the construction worker from his solitude. While the film shows the traditional family in crisis, it remains a traditional film, refusing to compromise the integrity of the film with the artistic impulses of many overly expressive independent filmmakers. Thanks to this impetus and the drive of these young child actors (particularly Jesse Camacho), 12 and Holding manages to get a strikingly true story out into the world, a world that just keeps going, day by beautiful, ugly day.

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