Hell Is for Children

12 and Holding (Photo by Julia Griner/IFC Films)

In 2001, director Michael Cuesta deservedly won prizes all over the indie map for L.I.E., a delicately observed study of sexual identity, parental insufficiency and loss among troubled Long Island adolescents. Cuesta doesn’t lack for brass: L.I.E.’s most compelling character is a neighborhood pedophile whose instincts are as protective as they’re predatory. By contrast, his new film, 12 and Holding, which harps obsessively and fruitlessly on similar themes, is all brass and no intelligence. Where L.I.E. turned on the plausible loss of a mother to suicide, 12 and Holding opens with an act of malice as calculated as it is literally inflammatory — a group of trailer-trash boys setting fire to a tree house, killing the more happy-go-lucky of twin boys (both played by Conor Donovan) from a respectable suburban family. As if this weren’t trauma enough, the deck is further stacked when each of his surviving friends is lumbered with a prominently displayed cross to bear. Jacob, the timid surviving twin, feels cursed by a lurid facial birthmark; his friend Malee (Zoë Weizenbaum), whose parents are divorced, foists her burgeoning sexuality and emotional confusion on the first ?inappropriate adult male she meets (Jeremy Renner); while fat Leonard (Jesse Camacho) embarks on an ill-starred campaign to repair his own unhappy family.

Cuesta works well with underage actors, but there’s no hiding the fact that these kids amount to little more than the sum of their suffering at the hands of cardboard parental incompetents — an obese mother scarfing down the carbs to mask her unhappiness (Marcia DeBonis) and a therapist (Annabella Sciorra) as sensitive to her clients’ woes as she is clueless about her own daughter’s ­­— both held in palpable contempt by the movie’s young screenwriter, Anthony S. Cipriano. Perhaps sensing the poverty of the material, Cuesta hovers diffidently over this lackluster crew with a faux-poetic hand-held camera, unsure whether he’s leading them to redemption, revenge or merely the tired promise of a gun in the third act. If L.I.E. was about the warping of children’s love for their parents, 12 and Holding is a form of child abuse all its own.

It may reek of contrivance and that irrepressible urge to shock for shock’s sake, but 12 and Holding is downright deep compared to the reflexive sadism of Dead Man’s Shoes, a putative black comedy with lofty pretensions to Greek tragedy by British director Shane Meadows. Whatever traces of Anglophile admiration for the civilized British you may be clinging to after the damage done by Sexy Beast, the collected works of Danny Boyle and Vera Drake will be ripped to shreds by Meadows’ cloddish attempt to throw his hat into the ring of Tarantino horror. No rural idyll, the small-town Midlands area where Meadows grew up, as realized in his lovely first film, 24/7, and two other lesser movies (A Room for Romeo Brass and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands), comprises a dreary hellhole of ugly housing projects disfiguring the wild beauty of the countryside in which they’re planted, one that is populated by small-potatoes drug dealers like the band of pathetic thugs who sit around sniffing coke and reading porn mags aloud in Dead Man’s Shoes. Like 12 and Holding, Meadows’ latest is purportedly about the reproductive power of cruelty, in this case avenging the brutal victimization of the mentally disabled younger brother (a very good Toby Kebbell) of Richard (played by Paddy Considine, a capable actor who, on the evidence of the script he co-wrote with Meadows for this film, should stick to what he does best), a soldier tormented by guilt over his inability to protect his sibling. Dead Man’s Shoes makes the occasional lunge for depth psychology and dark humor (it’s the former that will make you laugh, and then only if you can penetrate the thick local dialect), but mostly it’s a graphic catalog, ineptly staged by a director known for visual poetry, of the varieties of torture Richard has up his twisted sleeve for the sniveling wrecks who wronged his brother. Like so many movies of its kind, Dead Man’s Shoes gets hopelessly lost in vicious process, and so loses all sight of anything you might optimistically call insight.

12 AND HOLDING | Directed by MICHAEL CUESTA | Written by ANTHONY S. CIPRIANO | Produced by LESLIE URDANG, CUESTA, BRIAN BELL and JENNY SCHWEITZER | Released by IFC Films | At Playhouse 7 & Sunset 5

DEAD MAN’S SHOES | Directed by SHANE MEADOWS | Written by PADDY CONSIDINE and MEADOWS | Produced by MARK HERBERT | Released by Magnolia Pictures | At Sunset 5

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