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12 and Holding Review

By Shawn McKenzie 06/18/2006

The last time director Michael Cuesta stood behind theatrical cameras, he was helming his directorial debut, 2001’s dark L.I.E.  In the years that followed, he directed several episodes of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.”  He is back behind the cameras with an equally disturbing movie, 12 and Holding, but in some ways, it is better, and happier, than his first one.

Twelve-year-old Jacob Carges (Conor Donovan) has always felt like a failure against his well-liked athletic twin brother, Rudy (also Donovan.)  Part of why he is so shy, while Rudy is so outgoing, is because he has a big, purple birthmark covering the entire left side of his face.  He hides his face from the world in a hockey mask…kind of like the Phantom of the Opera (Max Miner doubles for Jacob when he is wearing the mask.)  One day, Rudy and his fellow 12-year-old friends Malee Chuang (Zoë Weizenbaum) and Leonard Fisher (Jesse Camacho) are hanging out in the Carges brothers’ treehouse, when two local bullies named Kenny (Michael C. Fuchs) and Jeff (Martin Campetta) harass them.  Apparently, this is a common occurrence, but on this day, Rudy has a revenge planned for them…he has stored up a bucket of urine, and he drops it on the bullies’ heads.  Kenny and Jeff vow to get back at them, so Rudy tells Jacob that they need to protect the treehouse that evening.  Jacob doesn’t want to do it, so Rudy calls him a chicken and brings Leonard with him instead.  Even though Rudy tells Leonard not to fall asleep, Leonard ends up doing just that.  Kenny and Jeff do indeed come back to get back at them by throwing Molotov cocktails into the treehouse.  Their intention was to just burn down the treehouse, not harm anyone, but when they hear the screams from inside, Jeff bolts.  Leonard falls out of the treehouse and lands on his face, while Rudy dies in the fire.  Kenny tries to save Leonard, which is why he survives, but both of the bullies are eventually caught.  While in the hospital, Leonard’s doctor (Tony Roberts) tells his parents, Grace (Marcia DeBonis) and Patrick (Tom McGowan), that Leonard has anosmia, which is the total absence of smell (which also affects his ability to taste.)  This is most likely due to the hard blow to his face from the fall.  Leonard is an extremely overweight kid (as are both of his parents), but while in the hospital, he loses his appetite.  A nurse (Marcella Lowery) suggests an apple, because it is healthy, and the crunchy noise will distract him.  Meanwhile, Jacob’s parents, Jim (Linus Roache) and Ashley (Jayne Atkinson), receive some devastating news:  Kenny and Jeff are only going to get one year in juvenile hall and five years probation for the death of Rudy.  The Carges household deals with this news in different ways.  Jim sells the land that had the treehouse to Gabe Artunion (Adam LeFevre), a land developer.  He also begins obsessively cleaning the house as a symbolic gesture.  Ashley retreats to her bedroom in a state of grief, and though it may not be Christian to do so as she says, she still wishes for the death of Kenny and Jeff.  In her grief, she also adopts a new kid named Keith Gardner (Joseph “C.J.” Foster), a younger black kid that Jacob perceives to be a replacement for Rudy.  Jacob decides to plan a revenge fantasy against Kenny and Jeff, and he visits their detention hall frequently to taunt them with it.  Only Kenny will see Jacob and take his abuse, since he is lonely and no one else comes to visit him.  After a while, they slowly begin to bond.  Malee is dealing with Rudy’s death in her own way.  While waiting in the waiting room of her bitter divorced psychotherapist mother Carla’s (Annabella Sciorra) office following Rudy’s funeral, she meets one of Carla’s patients.  Gus Maitland (Jeremy Renner) is a hunky former firefighter who is working on the new development of the land that Jim sold following the death of Rudy.  He is seeing Carla because he is traumatized by something that happened to him back when he used to fight fires.  Malee develops a huge crush on him, and she starts taking him several picnic lunches at his construction site.  She also listens in on his therapy sessions through a heating grate, where she hears that he likes Blue Öyster Cult’s “Burnin’ for You.”  She had been too nervous to perform the flute in music teacher Mr. Farmer’s (Mark Linn-Baker) Fall Recital, but her crush on Gus has made her have the confidence…especially when he tells her that he will attend the performance (she of course performs “Burnin’ for You.”)  The crush turns into obsession, and she begins to break into his apartment when he isn’t home.  Back in Leonard’s world, the chubby kid has discovered that he has no desire to eat anything in general, so he decides to eat healthy food, since it all tastes the same.  After his P.E. coach, Mr. Gilmore (Bruce Altman), gives him some exercise and health books, he makes a health regimen for himself of jogging and eating things like apples and salad.  It really starts working, and he begins to lose weight.  Unfortunately, his mother thinks that all of this healthy living is actually unhealthy.  When his father takes his younger sisters Haley (Noelle “Parker” Present) and Sara (Jessica Sorto) on their annual father/son retreat this year instead of him, Leonard does something drastic to force his mother to eat healthier.  The tales of the three children come to a head in the end when something else tragic happens involving one of them.

When I saw this movie, it impressed me, so I had to go out and rent L.I.E.  Unfortunately, it was the R-rated version instead of the NC-17 version (it’s hard to find a video store nowadays that rents NC-17 movies, because the only video stores around are either Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, who think that mature adults can’t handle NC-17 movies, or porn shops, who stock only, well, porn.)  I don’t know how shocking the NC-17 version would have been, but I got a gist of it though the R-rated version.  It was about the unusual relationship between a 15-year-old boy, played by Paul Dano, and a middle-aged ex-Marine pederast, played by Brian Cox.  It had a down ending and it earned many kudos by critics for both Dano and Cox.  Holding was more satisfying in different ways.  While it also had a dark ending, it almost was a happier one (don’t worry…I won’t spoil it.)

I enjoyed the acting all around, except for the main character’s story.  Donovan was the least interesting actor, but I don’t know if that had anything to do with his acting or the fact that he had the least interesting storyline of the three children.  Anthony Cipriano wrote the screenplay (L.I.E. had been written by Cuesta, his brother Gerald, and his college friend Stephen M. Ryder), but for some reason, he made the Jacob story boring while making the Leonard and Malee stories interesting (especially Leonard’s story.  I can identify with being fat and having a smelling problem.)  The parents of the three children were good, but they were just there to support the tales of the kids.

I’m not saying that 12 and Holding is the “feel-good movie of the year” or anything (and I certainly would never encourage anyone to take their problems out in the way that Jacob does), but it is nice to see a dark indie flick have an inspiring ending once and a while.

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