No one said being a 13-year-old was easy. Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood, a dead ringer for a young Jennifer Garner) is a straight-A student living with her mother Melanie (Holly Hunter, nominated for an Oscar). Her family fights to get by with Melanies at-home hair salon. People, usually accompanied by wee kids, stroll in and out of their house like it was a bed and breakfast. Melanie’s previous boyfriend Brady (Jeremy Sisto) has sobered up and settled back into her life, despite Tracy’s wishes.
Evie (Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the film with the director) is that cool girl at Portola Middle School. Tracy desperately wishes to join Evies inner sanctum of friends, enough that shell steal the pocketbook of a stranger to impress Evie. Tracy is taken under Evies wing and learns how to flirt, dress, dance, kiss, and terrify her mother. Melanies concern is a slow simmer, but she cant ignore all the signs of what is happening momma’s little girl. The girls revel in bared midriffs, body piercing, and gallons of shiny make-up. Evie lives with her guardian Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), herself a sad woman ravaged by booze and pills. When she tells Melanie that Brooke beats her, the maternal instincts overpower her concern. She invites Evie to stay with her family. Evie even calls Melanie mom. More disintegration of Tracy follows.
Thirteen does exhibit a rare maturity in the displaying of teenage emotions, namely the pull to belong. It also pays incisive attention to our consumer society marketing teen sexuality and the implicit effects. Thirteen creates a more realistic teenager by showing the vulnerability that’s inherent in growing up.
Wood gives a strong performance as her character descends from goodie-good to teen vamp. Her square jaw and lanky frame are physically perfect at displaying a natural young awkwardness. She looks like a teenager I’d see on my block, not what Hollywood is trying to tell me. Wood gets a tad drunk on her characters emotions, like a scene where she tries to scare her mother by lurching forward and cooing, “No bra. No panties.”
Hunter’s depiction of Tracy’s mother is out to lunch about her daughter. This makes the character seem earnest yet stupidly naïve, and after the 200th request of we need to talk is met once again with a closed door, the audience begins to think that Melanie has some deep-seated issues herself.
The direction by first timer Catherine Harwicke starts off as annoying with self-gratifying camerawork. The handheld camera swoops in and out attempting to establish a fluid realism. She also utilizes muted or exaggerated colors to express Tracys highs and lows. What started as self-congratulatory direction actually warmed me over, and I began to take notice of how lovingly Hardwicke stuffs her frame and utilizes lighting. It seems like she could have a career ahead of her as a director.
Though the acting is strong and the direction grows on you, Thirteen never really rises above its ilk of cautionary tale. It’s your basic story set-up of good girl meets bad influence, gets bad, distances family and old friends, experiences highs and then crashing lows, usually capped off with some kind of lesson learned. This is Thirteen in a nutshell. Tracys change from good girl to pubescent trash occurs at an unbelievably fast speed.
You could make an argument that the film is trying to be daring and shocking, but this whole ”what’s wrong with kids today” routine has been done better in lesser films, like Larry Clark’s Kids. Even though Clark has a fixation for lingering on nubile bodies, his film portrays wayward teenagers and their hedonistic behavior without the constraints of trying to frame sympathetic characters. Thirteen hedges its resources; it cant be fully shocking if it keeps trying to make us like the characters, thus giving glimpses of remorse and doubt. In today’s world, I dont think its shocking anymore to see 13-year-olds engaged in drugs and sex, especially after witnessing kids killing kids in the brilliant City of God earlier last year.
Thirteen is a noble effort but fails in any attempt in functioning as preemptive wake-up call. The acting is quite capable (Wood appears to be headed for junior star status) but the film is ultimately unimpressive. Perhaps the only way to be shocked by this movie is if you’re a negligent parent with a disposable income. It would be worth a rental, but there’s nothing overpowering enough in the film to justify full movie ticket price. While I was watching Thirteen I kept recalling a piece of dialogue the grandfather in Fargo said: You let him go to McDonalds at this hour? They do more than drink milkshakes, I guarantee you that. In the end the message of Thirteen is simply this: one bad apple can spoil the bunch.
Nate’s Grade: C+