Thirteen (United States/United Kingdom, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sometimes, I wonder how the human races survives it. By "it," I am referring to that seemingly insurmountable time of life when body chemistry and societal pressures conspire to make every day seem like a titanic struggle - the teenage years. Even for those who live to a healthy, happy old age, the fourteenth year of life may be the cruelest one. Self-esteem is determined not by accomplishment or intelligence, but by how one is accepted by his or her peers. The pressure to rebel is overwhelming, even for the most calm and obedient child. It is a time of harrowing inner turmoil that, unfortunately, most movies reduce to a series of inane clichés.

Thirteen is a welcome exception to the rule - a smart movie that does not simplify or candy-coat the rigors of the teenage years. Instead, it amplifies them by dealing with characters who are less stable than "average" junior high schoolers. If living the life of a normal teenager is like quietly listening to a song on the radio, then living the life of Thirteen's characters is like listening to that same song, played live in an eardrum-splitting concert. The rhythm, tune, and lyrics are all the same. It's only the intensity, volume, and perhaps the approach that are different. Teenagers (barred from the movie by its "R" rating) will relate to these characters. Adults, by plumbing the depths of their memories, may also connect.

The film begins with a premise that has been utilized as the foundation for less ambitious outings like Can't Buy Me Love, Heathers and Jawbreaker - that of the introverted nerd who dreams of joining the popular crowd. Except, instead of developing this idea into a moralistic fairy tale or a black comedy, Thirteen descends into tragedy. In addition to being a fascinating and disturbing character study, Catherine Hardwicke's film examines the meltdown of an already dysfunctional family treading the razor's edge of collapse. Light the blue touch paper… and kaboom! That's what happens when popular bad girl Evie (Nikki Reed) enters the life of straight-A student Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood).

Tracy is every teacher's dream student - a quiet, serious young woman who is less concerned with her looks than with her grades. But, like most geeky girls on the ripe side of puberty, Tracy desperately wants to be liked and noticed, and not just by those in her clique. When an opportunity arises for her to jump the striations of the junior high school social circles by associating with Evie, every guy's wet dream, she takes advantage. Soon, the good girl and the bad girl are inseparable, and Evie has lured Tracy over to the dark side. Manipulative and conniving, Evie has driven a wedge between Tracy and her mother, Melanie (Holly Hunter), while at the same time insinuating herself into Tracy's home and school life. Tracy goes from earning A's to F's, from virginal reserve to wanton promiscuity, from sober to drunk, and from clean to strung-out. It's a total transformation. Yet, while Evie is acting on a deeply-buried need to belong and to find a perfect match to her own confused, uncertain soul, Tracy has embarked upon a path of self-loathing behavior that leads to a razor blade repeatedly slicing through the skin on her forearm.

Thirteen is tough because it has a raw energy and doesn't pull any punches. Hardwicke takes the viewers into the girls' psyches. Tracy is vulnerable because her father has walked out, leaving behind Mom's boyfriend, Brady (Jeremy Sisto), newly released from a halfway house, as her only male role model. Her mother tries to be more of a friend than a parent, further confusing the teenager. When she falls under Evie's spell, she doesn't just absorb some of the other girl's bad habits. Instead, she becomes a sponge, soaking up everything. Yet Evie is not as self-assured as she first appears to be. She too is troubled, and her friendship with Tracy, which is overlaid with unmistakable lesbian tones, becomes an unhealthy exercise in co-dependency.

Hardwicke's style may alienate some viewers. She uses a hand-held digital video camera and often bleeds away much of the color. The technique is intended to pull audiences into the characters' chaotic, jumpy mindset. But the potential for motion sickness exists, especially if this movie is watched in close proximity on a large screen. Those susceptible to equilibrium imbalances should watch Thirteen from the back of a theater or wait until it's available on video.

The acting is superlative, and lacks the histrionics that often accompany high-octane work by young performers. Evan Rachel Wood, who has had an impressive television career to-date, makes Tracy's transformation from shy nerd to angry slut a believable one. She flawlessly depicts a girl on the edge whose rebellion, in overdrive, is fueling self-destructive behavior. Nikki Reed, making her acting debut (she also co-wrote the screenplay, which contributes to its verisimilitude), depicts Evie not just as an oversexed manipulator, but as an emotionally starved young woman who knows only that she needs, without understanding what she needs. As the white trash adults, Holly Hunter and Deborah Kara Unger provide solid support and allow themselves to be photographed in an unflattering manner. (It appears that neither wears any makeup and Hunter has one of the most unglamorous nude scenes in any recent film.) Try to film Barbara Streisand looking like this.

If there is a flaw with Thirteen - and it is a minor one, to be sure - it's that the narrative occasionally seems jumpy. This may be the result of material left on the cutting room floor, or it may be that Hardwicke never intended to plug all the holes. But there is a sense that there's more of a relationship between Melanie and Evie's guardian, Brooke (Unger), than we see on-screen. There's also a curious instance in which a tough girl threatens Tracy, but there is no expected follow-up.

In opting to go with such an uncompromising approach, Hardwicke (who is making her directorial debut after toiling for years as a production designer) has placed Thirteen in a small category of tell-it-like-it-is teenage films. This movie has little in common with trite fare like She's All That. Instead, it belongs alongside Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love, the Sichel sisters' All Over Me, and Jim McKay's Girls Town. Noteworthy company, indeed, but, by virtue of the strength of its story and character development, Thirteen belongs there.

Thirteen (United States/United Kingdom, 2003)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2003-08-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1