12 and Holding was billed as a coming-of-age movie; and despite some very serious themes, it still manages to come off as a comedy with a deadpan and dark sense of humor. Directed by Michael Cuesta, who is best known for his work on the TV shows Six Feet Under, Dexter, and Homeland, the film’s biggest star is Jeremy Renner. Less well known is the young actress Zoe Weizenbaum who plays the determined, out-spoken and precocious Malee Chuang. Zoe also appeared in Memoirs of a Geisha.
Dispensing with any idea that this story of twelve-year-old friends might be light, the film opens with the murder of Malee’s friend Rudy, leaving Rudy’s twin brother Jacob, who has a birth mark over half his face, Leonard, who is morbidly obese, and Malee to cope with the loss.
In the next scene, Malee is having her first period, but her mother is too busy to realize and Malee has to figure out how to use a tampon herself. On the way to school she gloats to Leonard that she could now conceive and give birth to a child.
After the funeral, Malee stops in at her mother’s psychotherapy practice where in the waiting room she happens to meet one of her mother’s clients, Gus, a former firefighter dealing with PTSD.
Malee is smitten with Gus despite his being thirty-something years-old and she only twelve. While hanging out with Jacob and Leonard, Malee discovers that Gus is working at a nearby construction site, which also happens to be the location of Ruby’s murder. She resolves to make lunch for Gus and invite him to a picnic during his lunch-break.
Having had the fact of her mortality stirred by Rudy’s murder, Malee commits to living boldly. She dares to sign up for a flute solo at her school music show, and mentioning this to Gus, he promises to attend.
In her curiosity to learn more about Gus, Malee had eavesdropped on his therapy session with her mother and discovered that a certain song figures prominently in his dreams. This culminates in one of the comic highlights of the film as Malee plays Blue Oyster Cult’s Burning For You on the flute and then sings the lyrics in possibly one of the worst renditions of the song ever.
Gus is nonetheless extremely touched and Malee and he share a few moments together after the show.
Having fallen for Gus, Malee resolves to visit his house. Finding that he is not at home, she happens upon the key and lets herself in. As she snoops around Gus’s place, she uncovers a pistol, which she takes. When Gus returns home, Malee hides under the bed, but when he goes straight into the shower and begins weeping, Malee, out of fascination, is drawn out and is tempted to comfort him but instead decides to let herself out quietly.
Concerned that her mother will find the pistol, Malee passes the weapon off to Jacob to hide. Jacob will later use the gun to avenge the murder of his brother, and in the original version of the film, Malee returns it to Gus in the last scene.
By now Malee has decided to raise the stakes in her pursuit of Gus.
She makes herself up and joins Gus again for a lunch-break picnic; this is presumably the first time she has recognized and expressed herself as a sexual being. Unwittingly, Gus leads Malee on when the conversation turns to sex and he is forced to admit that it was not because of the age difference that his previous relationship had failed.
Malee falls out even further with her mother. Because she is also estranged from her father, the viewer is lead to believe that this lack of a supportive male presence in her life may be what is driving her infatuation with Gus.
Malee returns to Gus’s house a second time. She cleans up the place, prepares dinner, then puts on stockings and a negligee awaiting his return. Gus is not altogether surprised to discover her in his home, having surmised that she had previously been there and well aware of her crush on him. Gus reacts awkwardly, not wanting to destroy her, but at the same time realistically aware of the problematic nature of what is happening.
Malee is not discouraged and approaches Gus, asking him, “Don’t you like my body?” and telling him, “Touch me.”
The two briefly come together but they do not consummate their affection. Instead, Gus calls Malee’s mother and tells her what has been happening. Her mother is extremely shocked to the point that she acknowledges what a poor mother she has been and Malee’s need for a male connection. She finally agrees to take Malee to see the father she never really knew. And for Gus, his brief but profound relationship with Malee finally brings him release from the guilt he was suffering over the death by his own hand of a little girl in a devastating fire while he was a firefighter.
One cut of the film can be seen in full on Youtube.