What goes on the heads of children remains mysterious to many adults most of the time: a result of a kind of fairy-tale amnesia from our own rambling childhoods. In youth, a world of possibility collides with an unpredictable mix of trepidation and daring, based on ill-informed kid logic. Set ironically in a Rockwellian American Heartland of treehouses and family dinners, 12 and Holding depicts first-time experiences as threatening, foreboding, or exhilarating to kids. Screenwriter Anthony S. Cipriano and director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.) show realism, tender regard, and the benefit of the doubt for their young characters, but little of the same to their childish parents.
Cipriano and Cuesta also try to tell three thematically resonant but narratively distinct stories at the same time, making 12 and Holding a sort of independent film festival for kids, on shuffle play. The primary story concerns the ambiguous aftermath of an aggressive crime that leaves one boy dead. Though only one of the perpetrators stays behind to deal with the consequences, the death is clearly accidental; despite the circumstances, the dead boy's family and friends feel no less impact. Their lives shaken, three children embark on new paths toward a maturity seemingly thrust upon them, ready or not.
Jacob mourns the loss of his brother Rudy (both roles played by Conor Donovan), and increasingly dodges his suddenly unhinged parents; blotted with a wine-stain birthmark, Jacob harbors insecurity, guilt, and fresh rage directed at the boys responsible for Rudy's death. Injured on the night of the crime, Rudy and Jacob's obese friend Leonard (Jesse Camacho) loses his sense of taste; the symptom, paired with the encouragement of a coach at school, leads Leonard to a program of diet and exercise. Meanwhile, Jacob and Leonard's friend Malee (Zoë Weizenbaum), raised by a single-mom psychiatrist (Anabella Sciorra), seeks adult affection and sexual initiation from one of her patients, a thirtysomething construction worker named Gus (Jeremy Renner).
Cuesta's biggest misstep is playing Leonard's family for cruel, obnoxious laughs. Shooting the obese clan exclusively in wide-angle lenses as they shovel in each meal, Cuesta tells the audience that these characters don't deserve sympathy. In an unconvincing conceit, Leonard's parents are not just blithe about their poor diet but proud of it, and they actively discourage Leonard's healthy lifestyle choice (in part by excluding him from a family tradition). The extreme climax of this jokey storyline snaps back to drama, but by then, the damage is done.
The filmmakers show considerably more skill in balancing the humorous and dramatic beats of the other two morality tales: Malee's inappropriate courtship, and Jacob's self-doubting journey toward vengeance. In the former, Malee overhears Gus' dream about the Blue Oyster Cult's "Burning for You," then arranges for Gus to see her perform the song at a school talent show (the song also resonates with Rudy's death by fire, an ironic inspiration to the other children).
Jacob listens to his father (Linus Roache) explain a cleaning jag as "a symbolic gesture of bringing out the old and bringing in the new," then rejects an invitation to join in the activity. The deadpan reply "Do I have to?" is funny in its obviousness (why would a kid, especially this alienated one, want to clean?), but also shows Jacob's lonely resistance to replacing Rudy, even as his parents start talking adoption. Cipriano sends Malee and Jacob hurtling toward their own extreme climaxes, but does a better job of earning them with emotional depth.
Despite the convenient contrivances (a lost sense of taste?) and spell-breaking tonal shifts, Cuesta keeps 12 and Holding absorbing on the strength of its performances and dark melodrama. The adult cast (including Tony Roberts, Bruce Altman, and Mark-Linn Baker in cameos) proves useful, but the kids are particularly good, intuiting their characters' uneasy reflections of adulthood and putting them into creative practice.