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12 and Holding

Kids Doing the Darndest Things

Clearly, Michael Cuesta is fascinated by the lives of children who are thrust too soon into adulthood, whether by choice or by circumstance. In his first feature, 2001ís L.I.E., he studied Long Island teenagers whose lives had been shaped by their dealings with sexual predators. His latest, 12 and Holding, is only slightly less jarring. It examines three children, all saddled with parents who are incapable of providing them with sensible guidance. Left to their own devices, they take matters into their own hands, often with startling results.

The movie begins with a shocking sequence in which two boys, Rudy (Conor Donovan) and Leonard (Jesse Camacho), are spending a quiet evening in their treehouse when a pair of bullies set it aflame. Rudy falls to his death; Leonard escapes with minor injuries. Left to cope with the loss are Rudyís parents and his identical twin Jacob, also played by Donovan. Jacob had intended to join Rudy at the treehouse. Now, he agonizes over his decision to stay home and spends his days envisioning violent revenge fantasies.

Life isnít easy for Leonard, either. Heís the fat kid, the one who canít do a single chin-up in gym class. After his coach encourages him to lose the weight, promising him a spot on the football team if he gets in shape, Leonard begins to work out. He then devises a shrewd (and ethically unsound) scheme to help his similarly obese mother, whoís not exactly thrilled that her son has decided to boycott her fattening meals.

Then thereís Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), whose mother Carla (Annabella Sciorra, last seen in "The Sopranos") is a bitterly divorced therapist. Malee lacks a father figure, and compensates by developing an unhealthy fixation on Gus (Jeremy Renner), one of her momís adult patients.

In all three cases, Cuesta lovingly depicts children trying to cope with their problems by resorting to extremes, at the expense of common sense. And though theyíre misguided, itís hard not to sympathize. Their parents are self-absorbed, consumed by the turmoil in their own lives and oblivious to all else. Meanwhile, their kids are desperate and lonely, and itís easy to identify with their pain.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars