Tuesday, April 04, 2006

ND/NF, Day 6

Twelve and Holding

After two days in Europe, it's time to get back on the US indie track. Four years ago, commercial director and photographer Michael Cuesta splashed on the scene with his impressive feature debut L.I.E. First shown in the UK at the London Film Festival, the film expressed the loneliness of Long Island suburban teens without the over-eager posturing of American Beauty or the pitch-black humour of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness). L.I.E. showed to which extent teenagers will go to find love, warm and affection in the absence of caring, focused parents. Much like Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin, the film nudges a lonely teen towards a pedophile without letting the story be about sex, sleaze or sensationalism.

All of these films are about spoilt American adults who are too busy with their own lives to see the needs of their own off-spring. None of them are about sex, because the characters don't have time for that. There are second jobs to be held down, second mortgages to be paid, mistresses to buy jewellery for. Cuesta's follow-up Twelve and Holding returns to the same territory. This time the protagonists are a few years younger than in L.I.E. but the burdens they carry are no less heavy. Cuesta didn't write this film, newcomer Anthony Cipriani did, but he was interested in revisiting L.I.E. territory because as he explains in the press notes, "My own children happen to be young right now, so that's spilling into what I'm reading, writing and how I respond to the world."

In contrast to the low-key subtle tone of L.I.E, Twelve and Holding is blessed with a keen sense of humour. Not nearly as dark as Solondz's, but it does an excellent job in driving home the point that sometimes children are more in touch with their feelings and their place in the world than adults are.

Jacob hides a huge red birthmark behind the ski mask that he wears permanently. He discards it when his twin brother, who was always the brighter, better one, is tragically killed by malicious classmates. His parents go into a tailspin after the death of their favourite one, so Jacob decides to chart a course of his own. His friend Malee is the free-spirited Asian daughter of a white therapist who is very busy listening to strangers who pay her to do that. Malee's nascent awareness of her body puts her on a collision course with one of her Mom's very attractive patients. Finally, their very overweight friend Leonard sees the light when his gym teacher gives him a book on nutrition and exercise. Re-educating his parents, the ones who 'love' him with huge quantities of comfort food, proves to be harder than he thought. Drastic measures are called for.

The plot's denouements veer towards the farcical territory of Solondz's latest film Palindromes, which is alright, since by then both Cuesta and Cipriano have invested a great deal in the characters' emotional baggage and they do it in their own way. This is not a film about messed-up teenagers, it's about messed-up 'adults' who think about their own needs first. Like Palindromes, it is a scathing critique of the American soul that wants MORE! NOW! Palindromes had trouble landing an American distributor and the first American reviews of Twelve and Holding are not enthusiastic, but that is probably because most Americans do not take kindly to the reflection in the mirror. Cipriano's warm humour and the children's entrancing performances make the film less of a sociopolitical treatise, but simply another impressive notch on the bedpost of New York indie cinema: the perfect conclusion of this year's New Director/New Films series.

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