The Films of Michael Cuesta
L.I.E. (March 12/02)
L.I.E. is, in a nutshell, the sort of film that Larry Clark has cornered the market on. With its disillusioned kids, clueless parents, and lack of a structured storyline, L.I.E. could easily be mistaken for the latest Clark film. But what puts L.I.E. a cut above Clark's movies is the surprisingly tender relationship between central characters Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) and Big John (Brian Cox). Though Big John is established as a pederast early on (and Howie seems to fit the bill in terms of Big John's personal preferences), the two grow unexpectedly close - even going so far as to read poetry to each other - which confuses Harrigan more than anything else. He's used to lusting after young boys, but becoming a paternal influence over one is an entirely new experience for the man. As viewers, we want desperately to hate Harrigan for obvious reasons, but Michael Cuesta (who co-wrote and directed the film) never gives us the chance. We know what Big John does in his spare time but Cuesta never dwells on the matter, which makes it almost impossible to dislike the character. And as played by Brian Cox, this is a guy that eventually winds up becoming a tragic figure - ie we eventually feel sorry for a child molester.
The other performances are equally good, with the various kids ditching cutesy for realism and Bruce Altman perfectly embodying Howie's self-centered and entirely oblivious father. What keeps the movie from becoming anything more than a showcase for some excellent performances, however, is the complete and utter lack of a concrete plot. Cuesta's meandering style - aped from Clark, obviously - is initially somewhat compelling, showing us a side of upper-class life we wouldn't expect. But his only subplot (Howie's father is arrested for mishandling certain business deals) is lackluster, leaving us with Big John and Howie's relationship. And while it is fascinating on a sort of perverse level, it's ultimately just not interesting enough to keep the movie afloat.
Twelve and Holding
Though saddled with an uneven vibe and a few lackluster performances, Twelve and Holding improves considerably as it progresses - ultimately transforming from a middling drama into an unexpectedly powerful piece of work. Directed by Michael Cuesta and written by Anthony Cipriano, the film follows a trio of adolescents - Conor Donovan's Jacob, Jesse Camacho's Leonard, and Zoe Weizenbaum's Malee - as they attempt to cope with individual problems of escalating seriousness (ie chubby Leonard decides to lose some weight, Malee develops a crush on a construction worker, and Jacob must deal with the death of his twin). There's little doubt that the darkly dramatic tone within Twelve and Holding's first act - which primarily revolves around the tragic accident that claims the life of Jacob's brother - is far more promising than what follows, particularly as Cuesta and Cipriano place the emphasis on Leonard and Malee's idiosyncratic misadventures. That the three young performers prove to be somewhat less-than-competent in terms of acting ability probably doesn't help matters, and it seems apparent that the emotional impact of certain sequences is dulled by their inability to create textured, fully-realized characters. The adult cast, however, fares a whole lot better, with Jeremy Renner delivering a compelling and thoroughly riveting performance as the man that Malee is lusting after (the actor has one absolutely spellbinding scene late in the picture that's pretty much worth the price of admission). And as periodically meandering as the opening hour is, there's just no denying the effectiveness of several emotional revelations that crop up towards the film's conclusion - with the end result a movie that generally succeeds in spite of its various deficiencies.