Michael Cuesta’s Target Audience

The director of “Twelve and Holding,” “L.I.E.” talks about his childhood

Michael Cuesta’s “L.I.E.” caused a stir back in 2001 with its tale of a 15-year old who meets a father figure in the local pedophile. With his new film, “Twelve and Holding,” Cuesta once again chronicles young kids coming of age under difficult circumstances with dexterity and sensitivity. This story, a triptych, written by Anthony S. Cipriano, concerns three “tweens” dealing with issues of hate, weight, and sexuality in the aftermath of a tragedy.

“My goal with “L.I.E.” was to ‘tell it like it is,’” said Cuesta in a recent interview. And the same strategy applies to “Twelve and Holding.” But as with his previous feature, the filmmaker recalls having to answer concerns about “who is going to see this” when he sought to get financing.

Cuesta responded his skeptics by suggesting, “I think [this film is] a new millennium ‘Stand By Me.’ It’s nostalgia for growing up with a tree house, but I think the audience is one that is just at the age to start to become nostalgic—like in your early 20s, when you start to look back as a young adult at that time.”

He continued, making observations about the appeal of his films for younger audiences, “I think this movie will have a good fan base of teens. “L.I.E.” had that. “L.I.E.” was NC-17, but [kids] found a way to see the movie. They rented it when it came out on DVD.”

The three interlocking storylines—about a twin seeking revenge on his brother’s killer, a young girl falling in love with an inappropriate older man, and an overweight kid trying to loose pounds and get into shape—will appeal to people who have dealt directly or indirectly with the issues depicted in the film.

Cuesta himself identifies in part with the character of Jacob (Conor Donovan), a boy who hides a large birthmark on his face with a hockey mask in an effort to conceal his insecurity.

“I remember as a kid, I had really bad acne,” Cuesta said. “In 1979, when The Clash album came out, and Joe Strummer wore the bandana like a Sandinista, I used to do that saying I was doing it [because of] the Clash album. But really it was to cover my face.”

Finding such empathy for the characters is the filmmaker’s way of being able to get the emotions flowing from scene to scene even as the film’s tone shifts from comic moments to more tragic ones.

As for his own childhood, Cuesta admitted, “I guess you could say I was your typical disaffected youth, in that I didn’t feel that I fit in anywhere. And the longing and need to connect I remember it being extremely strong. And also, as I look back on my life, I would say that between 12 and 15 was the hardest time. I’m much happier now. There’s this myth that that is such a happy time for kids. That is a really hard time in your life. I don’t think people explore [this] in movies enough.”

As “Twelve and Holding” shows, kids are looking to take control of their lives, and in the case of Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), explore their sexuality by flirting with Gus (Jeremy Renner), a hunky construction worker who is also one of her mother’s therapy patients.

This uneasy relationship—not unlike the one between the characters of Howie and Big John in “L.I.E.”—fascinates Cuesta who responds to stories involving characters navigating their sexuality.

“There are plenty of girls who are 12 and get their period and are sexually evolving like Malee. Gus definitely is enchanted by this girl, and her precociousness. What I loved about [this storyline] was that there was that sense, which is very real, that if you were next to her, watching what she’s doing, you would say, ‘Holy shit, stay away from this guy!’ One might say the same thing to the teen in ‘L.I.E.’”

Yet even when the Malee/Gus storyline threatens to become contrived, it recovers. Cuesta likes the ambiguities in his film, especially when Jacob’s story comes to a head. “It’s schematic, but so what?” the filmmaker shrugged. “It’s a film about kids, showing that they are thinking these things. This is an extreme story about what kids are thinking about or what could maybe happen.”

Furthermore, Cuesta added passionately, “Kids don’t go see real movies about them. I think that’s completely wrong. You have to get it out there. These kids need movies like this.”

Thankfully, a filmmaker is honest enough and brave enough to bring stories like “L.I.E.” and “Twelve and Holding” to the screen.