It’s not without its weak points, but the indie film 12 and Holding about a group of 12 year olds struggling through early adolescence is a winner overall.
The four main characters are twin boys—one a bit more assertive, and one self-conscious about a disfiguring birth mark coloring almost half his face—a girl in a conflictual relationship with her divorced single mother, and a fat kid whose whole family is overweight. They have no other siblings, and seem to have few if any friends beyond each other.
Actually, even though they’re presented as this group of friends, and the impression early is that it’s going to be the story of them as a team, in point of fact 80%-90% of the time only one of them is on screen. It’s kind of separate stories of each of them as individuals.
The film it reminded me of most of all the ones I’ve written about so far isn’t one of the full length movies at all, but the short film Aquarium. They’re about people of roughly the same socioeconomic class (white suburbanites) and similar ages (the kids in Aquarium being slightly older).
I liked Aquarium a fair amount as a short film. I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with the kids in that film. And that’s kind of the feel of this movie, that it’s able to go a little deeper, develop a few more characters.
The production values are clearer higher here. On the other hand, surprisingly the (presumably amateur) acting is at least as good in Aquarium. It’s mixed here—fine at times, but stiff and unconvincing at times.
The most important difference, though, is 12 and Holding decided to mix the “ordinary” travails of adolescence with great tragedy. In Aquarium the “big” event at the beginning is the boy choosing to euthanize his dog, whereas in this movie it’s child-on-child manslaughter. So, poignant and genuinely sad, versus devastating.
I think either approach is fine. You can make a good film about “typical” kids and their issues, or you can make a good film about a huge event like a childhood death and its aftermath.
But this film tries to do both, and I’m still kind of getting my mind around that, trying to decide just how successfully it pulls it off. It’s not like all of the film is about the tragic death the way you would expect with most movies that open with an event like that. It’s always there, but it doesn’t dominate all the storylines.
As I say, in effect each of the kids has his or her individual story. The fat kid decides to reform his life and try to get in shape, which his parents are not as happy about as you might think, since the primary way they know how to express love and to enjoy life is through food.
This subplot is decent, though maybe just a little too obvious in parts. Depicting the family members as always eating (e.g., a doctor tells the parents their son is seriously obese, while they munch away on whatever they got from the hospital vending machines) is overdone to the point it seems like it might be intended to generate laughs, which isn’t a tone that fits with the rest of the movie.
Meanwhile, the girl develops a major crush on a grown man, to the point of offering herself to him sexually. Again, perhaps a little obvious (troubled adolescent without a father, feeling unloved, etc.), but it works maybe even a little better than the fat kid’s subplot. She’s so sincere that you can’t help smiling at the emotional purity motivating her inappropriateness, but of course it’s sad at the same time. It’s a delicate area for a film to explore, but it’s handled quite nicely.
The surviving twin’s family of course spends the movie trying to come to terms with their loss. The father takes it as well as can be expected I suppose, while the mother is thrown into a seemingly permanent vengeful rage. The surviving twin expresses a certain amount of anger like that early, but it doesn’t seem to come natural to him and he moves away from that as the movie develops.
In fact, one of the most striking scenes of the movie is when the mother tells him that when he’s older he’ll understand why the people who killed his brother need to die for their act. Rather than presenting her rage as an excusable reaction to losing her son, she presents it as the emotionally and morally mature position that he’ll need to grow into. That was rather chilling to me.
The family decides to adopt another boy, but really that character and that whole subplot are barely developed at all.
The film may well have bitten off a little too much for its running time.
Maybe related to that, probably the main point I’m struggling to decide what to think of is that it turns out in addition to the major event at the beginning—the child’s death—later there are other biggies and near-misses to rival that.
I’ll give it this much: the way the movie developed surprised me. It felt like it had settled into being a reasonably strong and moving treatment of cringeworthy typical adolescent traumas and awkwardness, then all of a sudden it’s not about just one extraordinary event in otherwise ordinary lives, but multiple such.
It’s a risky move, because the late developments can grab so much attention as to devalue the quieter, more realistic, character development and storytelling that makes up the bulk of the movie. I was caring about these kids as regular kids, and then I felt myself being asked to respond to a different kind of movie.
The incident almost at the very end is the most jarring such example, as not only is it an extraordinary event, but it’s arguably not in character. So it makes you rethink a fair amount of what came before.
I’m not going to say the ending fails though. It’s different, it’s not what I was expecting, and it’s not a clear-cut success, but at worst it’s mixed. Certainly it gives me more to think about than if things wound down in a more typical fashion.
Overall 12 and Holding is an intriguing little movie.