I saw L.I.E.
, Cuesta’s prickly, ominous first film about a teenage boy and his developing friendship with a neighbor who happens to be a pedophile, when I was heavily pregnant. I think as a parent I was supposed to be shocked by it, but I wasn’t: Grim and challenging though it was, the film was realistic and thoughtful about the ways children court danger as they come of age. Cuesta's milieu is the suburbs of Long Island, and his families are better able to maintain the appearance of propriety than they are to care for one another, but Cuesta holds out the possibility of redemption for his characters, unlike Jerseyite Todd Solondz, whose oddball kids seem doomed to a life of perpetual shit. Here we have three oddball kids, centrally – 12-year-old best friends who ride bikes and hang out together in a thicket of woods miraculously left unpaved. Malee (Weizenbaum) is the fatherless daughter of a psychiatrist (Sciorra) and is stumbling toward womanhood. (An early scene shows her perturbed by a super-plus tampon.) Leonard (Camacho) is the fat kid in the class, and his family practices all-American comfort eating. Jacob (Donovan) is a shy twin with a port-wine birthmark across half his face, which he conceals with a hockey mask; his brother Rudy (Donovan again) is more confident and well-liked. But everything changes after a run-in with bullies at the gang’s treehouse leaves Rudy dead and Leonard with a head injury that damages his sense of smell. Suddenly repulsed by food, Leonard eats only apples and takes up jogging, while his plus-sized family bristles at his newfound disdain for them. Rudy’s grieving parents are by turns angry, apathetic, and over-indulgent, and he grimaces through the first day of school as the brother of a dead sibling – he’s even weirder to the other kids than he used to be. Malee falls in love with a construction worker (Renner) who’s a client of her mother’s and begins pursuing him recklessly. (Blue Öyster Cult is involved.) The story (by television scribe Anthony Cipriano, who’s steadier than Cuesta was with his own screenplay for L.I.E.
) plunges these people into sinister and sometimes dire situations, and Twelve
isn’t always easy to watch. But it feels emotionally authentic – not exploitive, not farfetchedly quirky – though one character’s backstory strikes a false note when revealed late in the film during a tearful psychotherapy session – and not cynical. The adults in the film try to love and guide their children but don’t always know how. Likewise, the kids make dreadful choices at times. They seem to have power they lacked before – sexual power, greater autonomy, their own ideas – and are naturally fascinated by taboos, but they don’t understand risk and loss. This is one of those rare movies about children but not necessarily for them, and it treats its adolescent subjects with bravery and compassion.