Director: Michael Cuesta
Depicting the angst faced by youth in our increasingly complicated America can be a tricky thing to transfer to film as we’ve all witnessed movies where the teens either speak like forty-year olds (quoting author Jack Kerouac's books and Clash lyrics), are solely concerned about being popular, or are depicted in ways that are so eccentric that they’re simply the stuff of bad Hollywood fiction. In one of the very best independent films of 2006, writer Anthony S. Cipriano and director Michael Cuesta manage to evoke such an amazingly disturbing sense of authenticity of twelve year olds growing up much too quickly in contemporary suburbia. Beginning the film during a typical 4th of July celebration, we meet our main young characters as they grasp with everyday problems such as bullies, overworked and apathetic parents and the beginning of puberty, but things take a much darker turn and we witness the effects on the entire community (most notably the children who are usually overlooked in most domestic dramas) after twelve year old Rudy Carges (Conor Donovan) dies in a tragic tree house accident when it is set on fire by local bullies. This horrible event leaves Rudy’s shy and more insecure twin brother, Jacob (also played by Donovan) who had always felt a bit like the more unpopular brother due to a birthmark that covers an entire side of his face, trying to understand his feelings of anger as he swears revenge when exposed to the unraveling and trauma encountered by his own family. The only survivor and witness to the tree house horror, aside from the bullies that Jacob taunts in juvenile hall, is Jacob’s good friend Leonard (Jesse Camacho). Leonard escapes from the fire without too much damage save for a few minor injuries and a curious side effect that has removed his sense of smell and ability to enjoy food, which sends the grossly overweight Leonard to reevaluate the way his entire heavyset family lives for food as he decides to diet and exercise, much to the chagrin of his parents who fear that he has joined a cult. The third child and friend suffering the aftermath of Rudy’s demise is the sole female and the heart of the film, Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), who spends her days mostly ignored by her overworked psychiatrist and doctoral candidate mother Annabella Sciorra and abandoned by her absentee father. Malee escapes into her own fixations as she develops an alarming crush on her mother's handsome patient and begins to sneak into his apartment when he’s away and happen upon him for minor flirtations. Cuesta’s mesmerizing film boasts completely natural and overwhelmingly emotional portrayals by its believable young actors and succeeds mightily thanks to its sensitive handling of several risky subject matters as the film reaches its dangerous conclusion, and special recognition is due as well for the brilliant screenplay by Cipriano. A critical hit during its film festival debut, the film was nearly ignored by audiences in its limited theatrical run which is a shame since it’s one of those haunting films about adolescence that both alarms viewers and rings true and one that only comes along every so often in American cinema. Check it out.