Twelve and Holding at TIFF

I was a wordy kid. There are hilarious videotapes of me before the age of ten where I am spouting off full-throttled verbiage with the alacrity of Alex Trebek. Still, the key to every single thing that I said before I turned twelve is a matter of style over substance: the words might have been big, but they were still expressing the mental space of a child.

The big problem when adults write for children (in any medium) is the enormous temptation to write the youngsters with the presence of mind of grown-ups. This temptation was apparently too much for Twelve and Holding's screenwriter, Anthony S. Cipriano, who has created a trio of 12-year-olds who speak and behave less like 12-year-olds than any 12-year-olds I've ever met. We get it: it's supposed to be a movie about kids, for adults, and thereby, Cipriano is just using the kids as cyphers to get his meaning across. The only problem with that is that we as an audience just can't believe it.

Would Jacob (Conor Donovan), whose twin brother was murdered by schoolyard bullies who are now in prison, really have the courage to take a taxi ride all the way across town just to confront his brother's killers? Would Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), having determined that a hunky construction worker (Jeremy Renner) is her soul mate, really have the guts to get dressed up, walk over to the construction site, and ask the man to a picnic lunch? Would Leonard (Jesse Camacho), in the real world, have the presence of mind to execute a detailed trap and confine his overweight mother in the basement just to prove a point to her about healthier eating habits? Of course not. The reality is that the lives of children this age are almost eternally ruled by fear, uncertainty, and a basic lack of working knowledge of how to get any of the above things done. This is out-and-out fantasy, and there's nothing wrong with that. The only real problem is that the tone Twelve and Holding strikes is so serious, and the plot points it unfolds so grave, that it's difficult to see these things as fantasy. And if they're not fantasy, they're just unbelievable.

It's a shame, because there's a lot going on here of great worth, even past the various unlikelihoods of the writing. The performances from all three leads - Camacho, Weizenbaum, and Donovan in a dual role as both brothers - are startlingly naturalistic and well-formed. From a thematic level, too, the film is aiming for the triple crown: it deals (in the Jacob story) with the origins, expressions and mindlessness of youth violence, and (in the Malee story) with the paradoxical pulls between a young girl's concepts of romance and the realities of her maturing body's sexual presence, and (in the Leonard story) with the ever-increasing reality that every parent in the United States who feeds their children a plate of fried chicken every night for dinner should probably be in prison for child abuse. These are important, contemporary themes regarding the "tween" culture which should be explored in our films and other media, and director Michael Cuesta does a workmanlike job of delivering the goods, never failing to subvert audience expectation by showing us just how nasty some of these situations can be. There's a lot of great stuff here. Renner's performance as the construction worker, particularly, is nothing short of superb, and his and Malee's storyline wraps up the most successfully of the trio, if only because Renner succeeds so brilliantly at completely bait-and-switching us regarding his character's motivations. It's brilliant.

Twelve and Holding is the sort of movie that needs to be made, but better. It feels like a prototype for something really brave and innovative that might one day successfully plumb the depths of the current trials of tweenhood. I hope it's not the last of its kind.

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