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‘Twelve and Holding’ doesn't live up to ‘L.I.E.’

Director Michael Cuesta is back with another story of troubled kids
/ Source: The Associated Press

Director Michael Cuesta made a remarkable film debut with 2001’s rich, disturbing “L.I.E.”, the story of a 15-year-old lost soul whose search for a parental figure lands him in a dark, complex relationship with a pedophile.

Cuesta has less success with his follow-up, “Twelve and Holding,” in which he’s back on teen-drama turf, telling multiple stories in which the circumstances often are interesting but rather forced and artificial.

The trio of youths at the heart of first-time screenwriter Anthony S. Cipriano’s script do shocking, outrageous things, events seemingly arising not so much from genuine character motivations as from desire for the film to shock and be outrageous.

The filmmakers offer hazy justifications for the teens’ actions, so why they do what they do ends up being puzzling — or worse, nonsensical.

Like 2004’s independent drama “Mean Creek,” “Twelve and Holding” revolves around a group of teens coping with tragedy resulting from an encounter with bullies.

Twins Rudy and Jacob Carges (both roles played by Conor Donovan) are utter opposites. Rudy is outgoing, fearless, defiant. Jacob, who hides behind a hockey mask early in the film because of a beet-red birthmark covering one side of his face, is meek and tentative.

The brothers hang with Leonard (Jesse Camacho), a chubby misfit from a family of gross overeaters, and Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), a precocious girl who behaves like an adult, though her emotions remain rooted in pubescent uncertainty.

A reckless act by two tormentors shatters the quartet of friends and leaves the Carges family in tatters, the parents (Linus Roache and Jayne Atkinson) in bizarre denial, one of the boys thirsting for revenge.

“Twelve and Holding” spins three largely disconnected stories from then on: That of the Carges clan; Malee’s clashes with her frazzled single mom (Annabella Sciorra) and the girl’s unnerving flirtation with a grown man (Jeremy Renner); and Leonard’s battle to free himself from his family’s cycle of gluttony and obesity.

Cuesta’s three young stars are remarkable. Donovan, Weizenbaum and Camacho convey complex and conflicting emotions with subtlety and zeal. Renner stands out among the adult cast, a man facing desires and demons reminiscent of those that confronted Brian Cox’s paternal molester in “L.I.E.”

Marcia DeBonis offers a great mix of humor and pathos as Leonard’s mother, seamlessly transforming the role from caricature to sympathetic spirit as her home life turns ominous.

Each thread of the story has satisfying moments of drama and suspense, Leonard’s and Malee’s dilemmas mixed with lightness and humor even as their escapades unfold with somber, perturbing results.

The trouble with all three scenarios is that the children act out in such extreme ways. The film’s credibility is diminished. And two of the stories wrap up so tidily that they could be finales for after-school specials.