I recently tried to recall a current 12-year-old celebrity-superstar and came up blank. Disney seems to pick actors fresh off the winning side of puberty, and even supporting characters cast in sibling roles either seem well into adolescence or yet to hit the “awkward phase.” Even if a 12-year-old is needed in a part, Hollywood seems more likely to cast someone who clearly looks (or actually is) 16 or 17. It’s not surprising—that age is literally smack dab between two of the suckiest stages of psychosocial development. Nearing the edge to greater self-awareness that naturally comes with aging isn’t exactly the most painless of processes either. For these reasons, I think all of us puberty-survivors tend to forget how easy it was to feel lost at 12.
Michael Cuesta clearly remembers in his grade-A indie, 12 and Holding, which follows three pre-teens—Jacob, Leonard, and Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum)—as they cope with death, disability acquisition, and parents who have no clue how to parent. 12 and Holding is far from a kids’ film; Jacob spends most of the time contemplating if he will avenge his brother’s murderer, while Malee is intent on winning the affection of a construction worker (Gus, played by Jeremy Renner) who is over twice her age. Leonard’s storyline is the most tonally obscure—his biggest hurdle involves trying to diet in a family that is clinically obese—but it ultimately serves as welcome dramedy. All of the child actors are solid, although the real treasure is arguably Renner, who gives a performance at least on par with his two Oscar-nominated turns. While I know most love Renner for his faux-archery skills and Mission Impossible-quippage, his strength as an actor lies so much in his restraint and ability to play the Everyman. His Gus is extraordinarily layered, measured, and realistically tortured. Weizenbaum also gives an incredibly fearless performance (for an actress of any age), and the two actors’ shared scenes register on about 1000 emotional scales.
Overall, Cuesta wins big. His shooting style is scrappy, but realistic, and the dialogue feels grounded and purposeful–both of which may be due to the seeming impossibility of indie-budgets. In many ways, Cuesta is a better “Actor’s Director” than David O. Russell or other big-name directors, as his cinematic vision is incredibly person-centered rather than personality-centered. To wit, while other directors may do a great job of maneuvering pre-teen characters, Cuesta superbly excels at tapping into their pain and inner-world experiences.
Indie-lovers will likely embrace this film; however, I strongly recommend it to developmental and school psychologists as well. What we may suppress when we eye-roll at an unruly 12-year-old, Cuesta remembers with a tangible empathy.
Watch it When: You’re looking to tap out on cinema obsessed with car chases, gun fights, and hand-to-hand combat for a night.
While You Watch: What did you hold on to most when you were 12?