Twelve and Holding

Twelve and Holding is the engaging second full-length feature from director Michael Cuesta following the critically acclaimed L.I.E. Most of the screen time is carried by its young, able and sometimes excellent cast. There are particularly notable performances from Zoë Weizenbaum who plays Malee, a lonely girl on the cusp of adolescence, with a crush on the Gus, a traumatised ex-fireman (played with great sensitivity by Jeremy Renner), who is a client of her divorcee-therapist mother.

The buddy movie classic Stand By Me soon came to mind for this reviewer. Both films are about a group of friends dealing with growing up, and centre around their response to a tragic event encountered on a journey of sorts. Both tell the story through the prism of childhood and the relationships formed between friends estranged from the adult world. But Twelve and Holding is different in some important ways. The children’s estrangement from the adult world is apparently endorsed by its authors (Cuesta and writer Anthony S Cipriano) through the portrayal of the peculiar dynamics that emerge when vulnerable yet knowing kids are subject to the damaging incompetencies of their parents. The young protagonists go on an adventure of sorts – into the otherworld of domesticated adulthood rather than into the wide and wild outdoors – but they don’t really learn anything because their elders, in this case, clearly aren’t their betters.

Roles are reversed and boundaries are blurred and confused. The disturbing scene where 12-year-old Malee disrobes and offers herself up to Gus goes beyond the taboo-breaking of even Nabokov’s Lolita by inverting it. He not she is the innocent of the piece, objectified as a kind of eroticised father-figure subject though never consenting to her confused advances. He is emasculated by his passivity both to his inner demons and her fantasies. When he later confesses to his therapist (her mother) that his time with this young girl was ‘therapeutic’, both are embarrassed, him for his transgressions and she for her failure in her obligations to both of them.

But it is ultimately adulthood that is disrobed in this piece. And found wanting. Adults are no more able to deal with events than their offspring, and consequently fail as models to which the latter may aspire. The children appear as ready-made cynics old before their time and pitying their parents for their ineptness. Conversely the adults embrace the state of adolescence vacated by their children, not because they yearn to see the world anew through uncynical eyes as the director seems to think, but in empathy with the existential confusion and angst of the troubled teenager.

But with children centre-stage and with their moral universe marked off as distinct from that of their incapable parents, the story has nowhere to go. Malee remains just precocious as she peers disapprovingly over her glasses at her mother; and the involuntarily obese Leonard, though a more sympathetic character, can only lock his mother in the basement in a desperate bid to control her appetite. There is no place for narrative progression if the adults are shown to exist only as toxic influences on their children, waiting to be saved by them.

Notably, both Leonard and his gluttonous parents are played to comic effect. They, as they lumber around and gorge themselves silly; and their son, as he attempts fat busting waddles to the end of the block. But beyond the comedy is contempt for the working class American family, for its junk lifestyle and ignorance of the damage its doing to its kids. And predictably enough, it gets its comeuppance when in one of the closing scenes the camera pans around the table as they tuck into their ill-appetising salads.

The only adults that aren’t portrayed as incompetent, selfish, vengeful or just plain nuts are the ones that form a connection, like Gus with Malee, by admitting their own vulnerability. And their characters are more-rounded as a result of this concession. Beyond this, the children and adults are just bemused by and alienated from each other.

Cuesta talks about how his characters ‘navigate the burden of their parents’ faults’ and how the latter learn from them as they encounter life’s problems afresh. Curiously, he argues that this is the result of the ‘experience’ of his young protagonists, when surely that’s the one thing they have less of! Beyond being encouraged by their spoilt kids to despise themselves, there was surely little for parents to learn. Cuesta also explains the prominent birth mark he gives one character, Jacob, as an added level of vulnerability. That he also has to deal with the grief for his dead brother and his ambiguous relationship with the boy responsible, shows that you can never elicit enough sympathy or over-egg the vulnerability pudding as far as this director is concerned.

The co-existence of these twin motifs of vulnerability and competence is a recurring feature in contemporary culture’s treatment of children and childhood – in the arts and in social policy. The piling on of one vulnerability on top of another, on the one hand, and the assertion (against all evidence to the contrary) that children are autonomous beings, as able as any adult to determine their own interests, on the other, are at the core of this film. That these are not seen as self-evidently conflicting traits tells us a lot about our understanding of our own and our children’s subjectivity, and the dramatic limitations of this particular portrayal of family life.

And yet for all this, Twelve and Holding is absorbing in its own terms, as an exploration of the way kids try to deal with growing up and learn to draw on their own resources in difficult times. The problem is that without the moral pointers traditionally provided by the adult world they, like us, inevitably lose their bearings. This is a new director with something to say, but if Twelve and Holding is anything to go by his talent lies rather in the way he says it.

UK release: 10 November 2006

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