Like his first feature L.I.E.—and like half of the glib provocations that tumble off the indie assembly line—Michael Cuesta’s Twelve and Holding is a sneering inquiry into the florid dysfunction that lurks deep in leafiest suburbia. Striking in both its confidence and its incoherence, L.I.E. detailed the queasy platonic relationship between a pretty, neglected teenage boy and the kindly neighborhood pederast. Cuesta’s new poisoned valentine to adolescence, a tragicomedy of pubertal acting out, is likewise premised on the clueless self-involvement of parents and the innate wisdom of children.
Punctuated by the gluttonous commemorations of various American holidays, the movie opens with a vicious act of juvenile retribution on the Fourth of July. Two bullies toss a flaming cocktail into their sworn enemies’ treehouse, killing 12-year-old Rudy. The dead boy’s sullen twin brother, Jacob (Conor Donovan, playing both roles), copes by visiting the juvenile detention center, plotting revenge on—and bonding with—one of the killers. His stunned parents (Linus Roache and Jayne Atkinson) are of little help—Jacob’s status as less favored twin is signified by his port-wine stain birthmark, which he often conceals behind a hockey mask.
The brothers’ two close friends, facing elaborate complications of their own, provide mild pathos and broad humor: Lonely Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum) develops an age-inappropriate crush on a construction worker (Jeremy Renner); the bemused stud happens to be a patient of her mother (Annabella Sciorra), a distracted shrink and embittered divorcée. In the most grotesque subplot, overweight Leonard (Jesse Camacho), injured in the accident that killed Rudy, loses his sense of taste and smell, and to the horror of his obese family, embarks on a fruit and vegetable diet.
To call Twelve and Holding cartoonish is to put it mildly. Marked by reckless tonal shifts, Anthony Cipriano’s screenplay traffics in sensationalism and sentimentality. Its treatment of adolescent sexuality, especially in comparison with last year’s Mysterious Skin, is at once self-congratulatory and squeamish. (It takes a certain sick humor to position Renner, who first attracted attention for playing Jeffrey Dahmer in a 2002 biopic, as an object of underage lust.) That said, the movie is on the whole pleasingly populated with underused pros like Sciorra and Roache. And as he demonstrated in L.I.E., Cuesta has a real skill—or maybe a perverse gift—for coaxing persuasive performances from young actors, never mind how nonsensical the role or contrived the situation. The pint-size cast lends some credence to a self-canceling mode that scans as humane Todd Solondz. But look closer—as this film’s most obvious forerunner, American Beauty, advised—and an uglier logic emerges. In Cuesta’s cynical formulation, the pretense of empathy is simply license to mock, gawk, and vulgarize.