A middle-aged fantasy of preteen alienation

Twelve and Holding

Directed by Michael Cuesta

IFC Films

Opens May 19

IFC Center

Like Michael Cuesta’s first film—the subtly titled “L.I.E.”—“Twelve and Holding” has some bones to pick with American suburbia. Unfortunately, everything about it feels secondhand. Having directed several “Six Feet Under” episodes, Cuesta seems more than a little acquainted with the worldview of its creator, “American Beauty” screenwriter Alan Ball, but his primary influence is Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.”

While Cuesta is less overtly cruel than Solondz, he can be just as snide—he’s just cagier about it. “Twelve and Holding” kicks off on July 4th and focuses on three 12-year-old friends. Amidst the parade lining up on a small town, Jacob and Rudy Carges (both played by Conor Donovan) take refuge in their treehouse. When other boys come to taunt them, Jacob pours a bucket of urine down the ladder. The bullies vow revenge later that evening. Leonard (Jesse Camacho) and Rudy return to the treehouse, but their antagonists have come armed with Molotov cocktails. Leonard escapes, but Rudy dies in the ensuing blaze.

Their friend Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), whose single mother is a psychiatrist (Annabella Sciorra), develops a crush on construction worker Gus (Jeremy Renner). Starting off innocent at first, it quickly becomes creepy and wildly inappropriate. Leonard tries to lose weight after injuries sustained in his fall from the treehouse rob him of his sense of taste.

In Solondz’s films, one gets the sense that the director is setting up his characters like targets at a shooting range. “Twelve and Holding” provides much the same queasy feeling, although Cuesta plays favorites more than Solondz. Leonard’s family is treated with utter contempt. All portly, they’re almost never shown without food in the shot, as if Cuesta thinks the overweight eat day and night. They’re essentially walking sight gags.

Leonard wants his family to get healthier, but his methods for doing so are cruel and dangerous. Even so, the film seems to share his disdain for them, while supposedly empathizing with him—their inability to understand his attempts to lose weight is ludicrous.

“L.I.E.” was cynical enough to make a pedophile its most sympathetic adult. “Twelve and Holding” replays cross-generational desire from a child’s perspective. It seems to be indicting a culture that prematurely sexualizes 12-year-olds, but doesn’t go very far. It leaves out any of the pressures that might lead Malee to try seducing an adult, aside from the glib suggestion that she’s looking for a father figure. While the early stages of the crush are rather cute and harmless—learning that Gus has a recurring nightmare in which he hears Blue Oyster Cult’s 1982 hit “Burnin’ For You,” she performs the song at a school talent show and invites him to watch—it rapidly turns into something dangerous. Gus defuses the situation and acts responsibly, but it leads to disaster indirectly.

The adults of “Twelve and Holding” are uniformly pathetic. Even at their worst behavior, their children are avenging angels, expressing the raw anger and desire that their parents have repressed. This perspective might be the film’s most genuinely adolescent aspect. Leonard is an outsider because of his weight, and Jacob because of the bright red birthmark covering half his face. Although the film doesn’t make much of her race, Malee is a Chinese-American adopted by a Caucasian mother and a father who’s completely absent from her life.

Cuesta and screenwriter Anthony Cipriano’s distance from their trio of protagonists is palpable; “Twelve and Holding” feels like a middle-aged adult’s fantasy of preteen alienation. The film never seems sure whether it’s a comedy or drama. It’s never very funny, but its absurdism—especially in the last half—leans towards the former. Cipriano piles incident upon contrivance, creating a screenplay that reads like a digest of all the films and TV shows about suburbia he’s seen. Alas, lived experience is a much more distant influence. As desperate as his characters are, Cipriano romanticizes their anomie as if it were a badge of authenticity in a plastic world.

Cuesta has grown a bit since “L.I.E,” made six years ago. “Twelve and Holding” is less inclined towards prurient sensationalism, closer to an episode of “Six Feet Under” than a Larry Clark film. However, Brian Cox’s performance in “L.I.E.,” far better than its screenplay warranted, helped salvage that film to a certain extent. I suspect Cuesta sees himself as a daring rebel against malignant “family values,” creating antidotes to a phony sitcom worldview, but his vision of Long Island as a circle of hell offers no real social or political perspective. “Twelve and Holding” is the cinematic equivalent of Hot Topic, the one-stop-shopping mall outlet for teenage goths and punks.