You think you get it at first: a standard snooze of a summer coming-of-age story, complete with bullies, bikes, a tree house, and a fat kid who loves Cheetos. But five minutes in, Twelve and Holding takes a turn for the macabre and you realize you have never been more wrong. It's the tale of Jacob, the lesser of two twins with a crimson birthmark splashed across his face, and his best friends, Leonard and Malee. When Jacob's handsomer, stronger, more powerful other half dies a gruesome and semi-accidental death, the three remaining kids diverge down bizarre yet moving paths of discovery and revenge.
Jacob plans a murder, haunted by his brother's final words to him ("You're a pussy"). Leonard, unable to smell or taste since the accident, is punished by his devoutly overweight family for refusing to eat doughnuts. Jacob's parents misguidedly adopt a replacement son. Malee, ignored by her therapist mother, falls obsessively in love with one of her mom's adult patients—eavesdropping on his therapy sessions, breaking into his apartment, and fearlessly wooing him with a flute recital rendition of Blue Oyster Cult's "Burnin' for You." Things get worse before they get better; things get weirder and never get normal.
The child actors—particularly the phenomenally funny Zoe Weizenbaum as Malee—are so much like tiny grownups that it's creepy. And though Twelve and Holding is not without its missteps (some cheese sneaks in at the end), even my cynical eyes rolled only once or twice. Conversational and smooth, heightened but not cartoony, the film accelerates firmly and joyously toward the fucked up at every juncture, in a string of beautiful, failed catharses. "Death is, like, so weird. You know?" muses Malee. Yeah.