Twelve takes us from glamorous parties on New York’s Upper East Side to the dark corners of the Bronx as we follow White Mike, who became a high school drop-out and drug dealer after the death of his mother, as he attempts to come to terms with his cousin’s mysterious death. New York might be the location where the movie is set, but it’s also a metaphorical place, a place where everything is present at once: the possibilities of a privileged youth, and the melancholy, desperate, lonely side of life. White Mike meets kids who have plenty of money and a future to blow, as well as ones who never had a chance in the first place; he meets people who have lost someone and people who can’t deal with the fact that they have nothing to lose. A voice-over narration by Kiefer Sutherland connects Nick McDonell’s novel to the movie, and gives us deeper insight into White Mike’s character. The result is a very dark portrait of a generation. Equal parts soap opera, theatre, poetry and party, Twelve accurately reflects the extreme contrasts its protagonists come up against (like a young girl reciting the Gettysburg Address while on drugs – one of the greatest scenes in the film). Sometimes the fact that you don’t want a future can destroy the present.
When Twelve – a novel written by a 17-year-old – was published, middle-aged reviewers were quick to point out how well the book captured the drug and party culture among super-rich New York City high schoolers. Even for those of us unfamiliar with that scene, the book exerts a certain pull and is interesting for its curious mix of artistic accomplishment and rawness. Joel Schumacher’s film makes sure to clean up the latter and completely destroys the former. Exhibit number one: the cleaning up of drug dealer Lionel. In McDonell’s novel, he’s a “creepy dude” with “brown and yellow bloodshot eyes” and “unwashed” skin. When Jessica nonchalantly offers him her virginity in return for drugs, it’s truly shocking. In Schumacher’s film, he’s Curtis Jackson a.k.a. 50 Cent, a squeaky-clean muscular hunk. Thousands of girls would sleep with him for free. Exhibit number two: the worst voice-over in cinematic history. In the book, the teenagers have a running internal monologue, full of self-importance and obliviousness: there’s a whole other world they don’t know about, in the way that’s so almost-endearing in people who haven’t hit 20. Schumacher has Kiefer Sutherland read those texts in his best tough-guy mode, which makes them sound silly and pretentious by turns. What’s an adult doing saying those lines anyway? Instead of making us care about young people adrift in an amoral world, it makes us want to tell him to shut up already, and them to grow up. The whole film is a waste of decent talent – specifically, Culkin and Roberts – and a decent writer.
TWELVE | Directed by Joel Schumacher (USA 2010) with Chace Crawford, Rory Culkin, Emma Roberts. Starts October 14.