Way to the left of a John Hughes movie is Michael Cuesta's ``12 and Holding."
The preteens in this fierce dramedy start lusting and rebelling earlier than the bratty adolescents in Hughes's comedies (as you might assume, they're 12). One even embarks on a morally murky revenge fantasy that plays like Charles Bronson for middle-schoolers. Emilio Estevez talked a good game in ``The Breakfast Club," but he never dared.
Hughes's suburban kids acted out for want of something else to do. (They were pampered archetypes, and they were bored.) The three New Jersey kids in ``12 and Holding" psychologically expand before our eyes.
The film details the fallout after a boy dies in a treehouse fire. He leaves behind his meek, facially disfigured twin, Jacob (Conor Donovan), and two friends, the extroverted Malee (Zoë Weizenbaum) and tubby Leonard (Jesse Camacho). Leonard survived the fire, but, in a development worthy of a fable, his ability to taste food has not.
Losing one sense, though, only enhances another. Finally he can see his family for the overweight food addicts they are. To his mother's dismay, he takes up exercise and eating healthy (the apple being his loaded fruit of revolt).
Jacob and Malee set off on riskier journeys. He shows up at juvie hall with photos of his dead brother as often as he can to torture the two bullies who set the fire. ``I'm gonna take a kitchen knife and cut off your fingers," he threatens.
Malee becomes infatuated with Gus (Jeremy Renner ), a patient of her therapist mother. First she scales a file cabinet to listen through a vent to his sessions. Then she starts visiting the construction site where he works and eventually sneaks into his apartment while he's gone.
Malee is a complex comic creation. After the funeral, she wears a dramatic black veil and becomes snappish. You can imagine that obsession with Gus turning her into a sort of Wes Anderson curio, a character whose preciousness and precocity is meant to substitute for her humanity.
Weizenbaum, though, is jarringly expressive. She plays a character who could have been an ambiguous Lolita, even on the pages of Anthony S. Cipriano's deftly constructed screenplay, but through Weizenbaum's sheer feeling the character becomes fierce and vulnerable. Malee is a girl who only thinks she knows what she's doing.
As a filmmaker, Cuesta is drawn to children who answer to puberty's call. The most fascinating thing about his 2001 debut, ``L.I.E.," was how the advances of a pedophile (played to unseemly perfection by Brian Cox) made its young protagonist aware of his sexual power. ``12 and Holding" aches, as well, to push boundaries.
The movie climaxes simultaneously with each child committing a transgression: Jacob seeks revenge, Malee tries to seduce Gus, and Leonard puts his mother on a severe crash diet. Yet because these three act with the force of childish certitude -- and adults are rarely around to challenge or correct -- the movie seems to skirt its complicated moral underpinnings.
In a way, this is what makes ``12 and Holding" special. Cuesta prizes curiosity and perception over conflict resolution. He likes the way kids take their cues from adults and the ways they revolt against them. Even as the kids do the ugliest things, the film stays cool without ever being cold.
Which brings us to Cuesta's ironic achievement: He's made a movie about 12-year-olds that most 12-year-olds probably won't be allowed to see.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.