Just when you think you've had it up to here with dysfunctional America, Michael Cuesta's film offers a stunning corrective. It examines the way three 12-year-old children learn harsh lessons of life too early. Malee (Zoë Weizenbaum) precociously imagines herself to be in love with a local construction worker (Jeremy Renner, superb); Leonard (Jesse Camacho) is a fattie determined to change the family diet; Jacob (Conor Donovan) is traumatised by the death of his twin brother, whom he secretly believes was the favourite of his parents.
The screenplay, by Anthony S Cipriano, is brilliantly poised between comedy and heart-wrenching distress, and from an apparently modest base it covers an astonishing amount of ground - it's not just that the movie deals so honestly and painfully with bereavement, obesity, inchoate sexuality, revenge and the implacable fact of death, it's that no single element of it is less compelling than another.
Had such material been taken on by a Todd Solondz or a Todd Field (this is the kind of film one hoped Little Children might have been), a knowingness and self-congratulation would have infected the tone. Michael Cuesta keeps it rigorously nonjudgmental yet manages to invest almost every scene with passionate feeling, not least because the performances are so truthful - watch out for Weizenbaum in particular, a star being born. This is even better than his first film, L.I.E., which is saying something.