It'd be nice to blame television. There are disappointing, unnatural differences between the films "L.I.E." and the new "12 and Holding," and it shouldn't be that way. Both films are stories about troubled kids in suburbia, and both are by director Michael Cuesta. But the first is expansive and original while the second is rather ordinary and cramped. It might be a coincidence that Cuesta directed several episodes of HBO's "Six Feet Under" between his two films, but you don't have to be aware of that information to notice a resemblance.
This story revolves around three preteen children whose lives are shaken by a close friend's murder. Twins Jacob and Rudy (Connor Donovan) are opposites; Rudy is the athletic, daring sibling, and Jacob, the brooding introvert. When bullies chase them up a tree house, Rudy is thrilled to dump a bucket of urine on them. Jacob worries it'll just make things worse. He's right, and soon Rudy is killed in a prank gone wrong.
The shock is a catalyst for some soul-searching on the part of Jacob, but also for close friends Leonard (Jesse Camacho), a severely overweight kid, and Malee (Zoe Weisenbaum), a lonely intellectual searching for a father figure. Leonard starts working out and eating healthfully, and Malee develops a crush on a construction worker. This movie is larger and more complex than "L.I.E.," which was about another lonely teen taken advantage of by a predatory older man. Somehow, though, the extra strands don't weave a better tapestry.
Some visions have an inherent power, as when children fondle a gun or when family members turn into barn animals at the dinner table. At the same time, they can look like a prelude to a commercial break. "12 and Holding" is too stiff-jointed to be about kids, even ones who seem too wise for their years. It's true, kids say the darnedest things. But Cuesta's kids in "12 and Holding" do and say so many darnedest things, they can't hide the adult artifice underneath. ** Wayne Melton