August 9, 2010
There is often nothing more evocative, or provocative, then the blend of teenage angst, money, madness, absent parenting, the pretense and pretend of early adulthood, too much freedom, a lack of accountability and responsibility, alcohol, sex and drugs. Just take a look at what’s on television every week, or look at many of the teens in high school today in certain areas of the country. 20+ years ago, "Less Than Zero" captured the decadence and heartbreak of this teenaged turmoil with a tortured free-wheeling and drug using character in the form of Robert Downey, Jr. (who of course went on to become one of the poster children for life imitating art with his many legal entanglements). Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, we never looked at Beverly Hills the same as it showed the hidden side of wealth, want and need. In 2002 the time and coastline shifted when then 17 year old aspiring writer Nick McDonell penned TWELVE. Stemming from his own personal anger over class distinction and the sense of entitlement that money gave himself and his Upper East Side, New York peers, TWELVE, also dealing with money, absent parenting, sex, alcohol and a new drug called Twelve, was immediately hailed for its brutal honesty and quickly became a bestseller book of the year. And now in 2010, director Joel Schumacher adds TWELVE to his repertoire with what is destined to become one of the classic teenage genre films of our time.
"White Mike" comes from a world of privilege. He also comes from a world of sorrow, loss and pain. His father, once a successful restaurant owner, is now down on his luck. His mother has recently passed away after a difficult battle with cancer. Now leading a double life, Mike has dropped out of school. Living in a flea bag apartment, he is working his way through the world as the illustrious "White Mike", drug dealer to the rich kids. If there’s a party or a prom or someone who just wants to get laid, you can count on White Mike’s ghostlike presence to be at the ready. Not able to completely let go of his past, however, Mike still stays in contact with his childhood friend, Molly, but never lets on how his life has turned. His closest friends now are his cousin Charlie, their friend Hunter, and White Mike’s main supplier, Lionel.
Unfortunately, thanks to Mike’s profession, Charlie easily entered the drug culture. Now addicted to Twelve, he can’t get enough. Low on cash and strung out, White Mike won’t supply him, so Charlie turns to the main source, Lionel. Hunter who may well be Mike’s truest friend, loves to hang out at the rec center. The only White boy in the bunch, he loves to play basketball, although racial differences and his Hunter’s ability lead to a knock-down-drag-out fist fight between Hunter and Nana, one of the rec kids, sending Nana limping home and leaving Hunter covered in Nana’s blood. In the meantime, Charlie is nowhere to be found.
Chris is one of the nouveau riche who desperately wants to be popular and desperately wants to have sex with Sara Ludlow, "the hottest girl in town." Unfortunately, Chris is a bit on the nerdy side and but for his large townhouse and lavish parties, would probably never have company or "friends." Sweetly gullible, Chris seems to always have several thousand dollars around for a weekend get-togther and "party favors", and is always happy to share his wealth if it means having "friends" over, particularly Sara Ludlow for her birthday party. Chris’ brother Claude is a true psycho with both a gun, cocaine and steroid obsession. Banned from the family home by his parents, Claude shows up unexpectedly while mom and dad are away and Chris is getting ready for the Ludlow party.
The other hottest chick in town is Jessica. Still a virgin, she gets turned on to Twelve during a party make-out session with a guy who left this bottle and dropper on the couch. Curious to see what is in the bottle, Jessica has no qualms about "going down the rabbit hole" and with the first drop, the hallucinogenic properties of the drug make it addictive from the first drop so it’s not surprising that Jessica drops one thousand dollars on her first buy from Lionel. What she drops on her second buy when cash is low is for you to find out.
Then we have the self-indulgent, self-destructive, self-designated leaders of the pack and the wannabees, all clamoring for a piece of the pie, a slice of the good life, and willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. Gabby and Chanel are slaves to Ludlow. While Sean, Andrew, Arturo, Mark and Tobias all want for something. Be it girls, be it drugs, be it acceptance. And then there are the faceless plastic people who are along for the ride, satisfied to bask in the presence of the young, rich and beautiful.
What happens during Christmas break when all these people from all walks of life converge at Chris’ for Sara’s birthday party while a double murder in Harlem takes place across town is something you have to see for yourself.
Chase Crawford as White Mike is fascinating to watch. He has a presence that draws you into the character, wanting to know more about this guy cloaked in black who slips around town like a thief - or ghost - in the night. Extremely well written character, Crawford’s performance is tight and controlled. Disappointing is Emma Roberts’ Molly. Her dialogue delivery was poor, but beyond that, her chemistry and persona didn’t fit the character or the script while her chemistry with Crawford was non-existent. And her performance as being "intoxicated" was beyond bad.
Supporting girls could have all been lifted from "Clueless" but for the fact that in addition to being little rich princesses with no respect for themselves, their parents or anyone around them, they have very dark "clueless" streaks in them. Zoe Kravitz proved to be annoying but appropriate as Gabby. Esti Ginzburg's Sara is the most unlikeable manipulative person on the planet but what captivated me was Ginzburg's delivery. She oozes sex appeal and is so identifiable with so many girls - and women - that figure that will get them through life (and sadly, for many it does). You are actually relieved for her as the film achieves its climax, knowing that Sara won’t be wasting her life any longer. Billy Magnussen is simply amazing as Claude. The level of freneticism and psychotic intensity that he maintains is staggering. Rory Culkin is spot on as Chris and brings this level of naivete and sweet innocence that proved a balance to the madness and addictions around him. Your heart goes out to Chris thanks to Culkin’s performance. And I have to say it, 50cent Jackson is fabulous as Lionel. Somehow you just know that he nailed the persona based on personal experience or observation.
Particularly interesting and notable is Emily Meade's Jessica, the excellence of which was clearly aided through some expert direction by Schumacher as well as incredible lensing and effects by cinematographer Steven Fierberg. The most transformative of the group with the greatest character arc next to Crawford’s White Mike, Meade draws us into the decline of morals, the loss of one’s soul and the emotional basket case that comes from "wanting."
Written by Jordan Melamed based on McDonell’s novel of the same name, TWELVE is a very interesting film. A very sad film. The dynamics are such so that you can't turn away from the screen even when there is some piss poor acting. Given that the characters and the situations are rooted in real life elevates the emotional impact while grounding the context. Dialogue is appropriate.
I find it interesting that it takes a 70 year old man to capture the essence of spoiled youth. Directed by Joel Schumacher, he creates an interesting metaphor through his set design and camera angles. With the bulk of activity and interpersonal engagement occurring within hallways and corridors, he brought this wonderful "passing through life" sense to the film. There are no real connections. Everyone is essentially a "ghost" in each other's life and by being in hallways and corridors, one has many paths they can take, doors they can open. It's up to them which they choose. I simply love that metaphoric structure and message, all of which lead to the film’s explosive ending. Along the way are great levels of texture underlying the metaphoric visuals complimented by the films polished production values.
Notable and thought provoking is Fierberg’s lensing while the use of relatively monochromatic subdued beiges or black also propel the story and set tone. The only time you really see any color is on Molly when she is at her own home or having coffee with Mike, but then even she slips into black. For her, life is black or white, just as it is for Mike. But for almost everyone else - at least the principals, they meld into shades of brown and beige - washouts in life.
Tying everything together like a neatly wrapped package is the smooth and flowing editing of Paul Zucker and Gordon Grinberg. A lush score Harry Gregson-Williams just seals the deal.
From start to finish though, thanks to Kiefer Sutherland's narration, I kept connecting with Hunter S. Thompson and this quintessential "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas". The narrative in TWELVE is very Thompsonesque and serves as a great sensory and intellectual connective tissue for TWELVE. ****ed up youth & drugs = ****ed up adults & drugs. Hmm...... nice parallel. The narrative on its own is incredible. Sutherland’s perfunctory deliberative enunciation and wry character commentary give the piece a distinctive indelible tone.
It’s not about need. It’s all about want. You want to see TWELVE.
White Mike - Chase Crawford
Molly - Emma Roberts
Claude - Billy Magnussen
Lionel - 50cent Jackson
Narrator - Kiefer Sutherland
Directed by Joel Schumacher. Written by Joel Melamed based on the novel by Nick McDonell.