Twelve and Holding

All the characters’ lives are messed up in “Twelve and Holding,” but they’re messed up in ways that we can relate to. It’s that underlying truthfulness that gives the well-told story its resonance.

It’s a fantastic second effort for director Michael Cuesta, whose 2001 debut “L.I.E.” was a devastating profile of two boys and the pedophile who interrupted their lives. “Twelve and Holding” is about young people again. There’s no pedophilia this time, but the theme of children growing up too fast is still prevalent.

In a typical suburban New Jersey neighborhood live three 12-year-olds who, we get the feeling, are friends solely because no one else is going to be friends with them. Jacob Carges (Conor Donovan) has a wine-stain birthmark on his face and lives in the shadow of his more athletic, outgoing twin brother. Malee Chung (Zoe Weizenbaum) is a precocious Asian-American girl who plays flute in the middle-school orchestra. And Leonard Fisher (Jesse Camacho) is grossly overweight.

They are frequently bullied by a boy named Kenny (Michael C. Fuchs) and his sidekick Jeff (Martin Campetta), and the film begins with a tragic accident that results in the death of Jacob’s brother. Kenny and Jeff are sent to juvenile hall, and Jacob, Malee and Leonard are left to pick up the pieces.

Dealing with death is just part of the story, though. Malee develops a crush on a construction worker named Gus (Jeremy Renner), a depressed man who is a patient of Malee’s psychiatrist mother (Annabella Sciorra). Though she is smarter than her peers intellectually, Malee is still immature emotionally. Her efforts to impress and woo Gus are sweet, cute, and sad.

Leonard, meanwhile, at the urging of his P.E. teacher, embarks on a diet and exercise plan that will get him in shape for high school football. His plan is aided by a head injury that causes him to lose his sense of smell, which means his sense of taste is gone, too. Now an apple tastes as good as a doughnut, so he might as well eat apples. His family, all as overweight as he is, are miffed over his apparent rejection of what once bonded them.

Jacob’s parents are beside themselves with grief, eventually (absurdly) adopting a foster child to help them cope. Jacob wonders if they would have preferred that he die and Rudy live — a terrible question to ask a parent, but Jacob’s poor little heart is breaking.

He and his friends need reassurance and understanding. Their parents love them, but they don’t know what to do with them. Malee’s mother is bewildered by her behavior. Leonard’s mother and father feel betrayed and guilty. Jacob’s parents are in a tailspin.

Cuesta tells all of these separate but related stories expertly, working from a lean and efficient script by Anthony Cipriano and encouraging remarkably strong, mature performances from the young cast. Directors like Todd Solondz and Larry Clark are fond of tormenting and exploiting their young characters, but Cuesta seems to sympathize with his. He casts them as the heroes, sometimes more adult than the grownups, perpetually fumbling to understand life but refusing to give up on it.

B+ (1 hr., 30 min.; R, a few F-words and some other profanity, a little non-sexual nudity.)