Thirteen
A 2003 NicksFlickPicks Honoree in One Category!
Director: Catherine Hardwicke. Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, Holly Hunter, Deborah Kara Unger, Brady Corbet, Jeremy Sisto, Kip Pardue, Sarah Clarke, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Charles Duckworth, D.W. Moffett. Screenplay: Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed.

Is Thirteen a movie about hysteric teen-age girls, or a movie about a teen-age culture of hysteria, or is it a movie in hysterics about teen-age culture? The question remains open throughout 100 minutes of running time, with all three answers vying for primacy, each of them seeming most credible at different moments. The result is that what interests and invigorates about Thirteen seldom matches what the distributor (Fox Searchlight) and the ads are pushing so hard as the movie's merits.

Much press has been devoted to the fact that Thirteen was co-scripted by its director, Catherine Hardwicke, and by its second lead, Nikki Reed, herself a sixteen-year-old describing her life's experiences from a few years prior. The movie itself bespeaks an evident and laudable conviction in the trials, pressures, and untapped potential of modern teenagers, and its youthful stars acquit themselves well under Hardwicke's hand. And yet, part of the movie's schizophrenia lies in the bipolarity, verging on hypocrisy, with which its creators have shaped and sold it. For while the film implies that teen-age girldom, at least as lived in the fallow, prefab suburbs of Los Angeles, is a ghastly and ever-gathering storm of unbridled impulse and squandered gifts, the publicity campaign is almost rapturously reverent of the "true" perspective conferred by Nikki Reed's hard-won wisdom. Beyond the fact that not many movies would risk their commercial prospects on the promise that "Listen up, a 16-year-old girl wrote this!"—by which measure the filmmakers of Thirteen are either wildly na´ve or bravely unprejudiced—there is still the paradox that nothing in Thirteen accounts for where, when, how, or why a survivor of its world would have attained any reliable clarity of perspective. The movie puts over a febrile and interesting dramatic scenario, but its motors are wholly conventional, pitting parents against children, women against men, the vulnerable blonde against the dark, dangerous beauty. The movie is uneven but it isn't exactly messy—as in, its messes are not those of recognizable reality but those of a choppy reproduction of a formula script.

Which leads us back to our original question: whose impressions are we watching? Whose panic are we feeling? Whose warnings are we being goaded to hear, and heed? Point-of-view within the film is deceptively varied. Often, when Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Evie (Reed), our petulant protagonists, slam a door in the face of Tracy's mother, Melanie (Holly Hunter), the film sweeps us through the keyhole, as it were, and shows us what goes on when young, burgeoning hellions are left by themselves. The smoking and huffing, the small tube-tops that are reassigned as even smaller skirts, the secretive hops out of the bedroom window and into the wild night—Thirteen wants us to see all of this. The informing presumption is that seventh-grade lives, like the proverbial trees in the forest, are forever falling but no one is hearing, or noticing. The movie is thus inflamed with moral ardor, emphatically demonstrating what is going wrong, what hurts are being concealed, what piles of domestic debris are being seen, internalized, and rebelled against by witnesses too young (and unguided) to vent their outrage more safely.

Then again, Thirteen occasionally leaves us helplessly in the face of that slammed door. We see Melanie momentarily denying the insult of a fresh rejection; fighting the bewilderment of Tracy's most recent flouting of authority; hesistantly gauging her own level of responsibility for her daughter's downward spiral. That none of the other adults in the movie are treated with similar moments of private, sincere worry—not Evie's blowzy, painkillered guardian Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), not Travis (D.W. Moffett), Tracy's cartoonish and long-departed dad, not Melanie's AA buddy who crashes in the family's house from time to time—partly suggests that Melanie, for all her notable lapses, has a shot at saving her daughter. (No one will look to Brooke or Travis for similar breakthroughs, admissions, or epiphanies.) Partly, these solitary pauses on Melanie help develop one of Thirteen's most oblique and most interesting subthemes: the suppressed jealousy that a young, single parent like Melanie might feel in the presence of her developing daughter, or that the same daughter might harbor toward her lean, attractive mom.

Really, though, I suspect that Hardwicke allows Melanie so much room and time in this narrative because, in Holly Hunter, she has the one performer who is both crafty and flexible enough to bring texture, irony, and complication to a frequently overdetermined scenario. Hunter, with her improbable alignments of Southern eccentricity, psychological acuity, and exhibitionist intensity, has become an old pro at spiking shaky narratives (Jesus' Son, Living Out Loud, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) with needful moments of clarity. Here, though, she does more, simultaneously calming the movie amid its most frenetic impulses and shaking up scenes that, given the premise, are the most doomed to overfamiliarity. She makes Melanie's departure for an AA meeting a scene rather than a setup; she more than fends off Tracy's, Evie's, and the film's urges to humiliate her while shopping for clothes in a youth-trendy store; and she injects surprise into the inevitable mother-vs.-daughter showdown by blurting out her own long-denied knowledge of Tracy's transgressions.

By contrast to Hunter, who has to fight for most of her scenes and more than once redeems the film, the younger actresses do good work with a lot of net to catch them. Evan Rachel Wood, who deserves the praise but not the raves she has garnered for her performance, mostly has to indicate Tracy's swift and possibly inexorable appetite for risk and danger. The actress succeeds very ably in doing this, and yet she does so with the entire film's aid. Almost everything in Thirteen—the hyperactive zoom lens, the rapid editing, the shocked and awed reaction shots to her dress and behavior, the looping narrative that juxtaposes her wildness in a preamble sequence with her primness in the flashback—creates a structure in which Wood's performance is not only lavishly showcased but virtually accomplished on her behalf. The jittery, excitable camera is whipped into such a frenzy over Wood's pierced navel that the conflict of the scene is not between her own transgression and her mother's despair, but between the rather mundane facts and the movie's deliriously baleful response. I was reminded of how Girl, Interrupted provided similar insurance to Angelina Jolie: sure, Jolie acted up a storm (if that's your kind of acting), but given how the movie slammed to a halt in her absence, clenched its focus in her presence, surrounded her doting close-ups with the ensemble's fascinated/horrified reactions, and plopped an unforgettably expressionist fright-wig on her head, how could she have missed?

Herein lie the contradictions of Thirteen: the movie is already so convinced of its own crisis by the time it starts that the audience never has to discover that crisis for itself. Undeniably, much that happens here is disturbing—the swapping around of unwanted children, the easy acquisition of drugs and money, the vicious, eagle-eyed zeal with which young women objectify one another (and which surprisingly, in this film, far eclipses the sexual threats or objectifying inclinations of men). I doubt the movie is making much ado about nothing, and everything from accelerated pregnancy, addiction, and STD rates among teens to rising high-school dropout figures defends the movie's urgency. Thirteen registers all of this without the sensationalistic leer of a Larry Clark or the dewy, distancing sheen of Girl, Interrupted.

Still, the young actresses seem so rigidly planted into the film's pre-formed concepts and sociological designs, and the tone of apoplectic distress is so uniform (tongue piercings = drug-taking = drug-selling?) and, occasionally, so indicative of old biases (all the prowling, sexualized men are non-white, except the neighbor-boy whom the girls themselves vainly enlist in an impromptu threesome) that we have to ask: is Thirteen really telling it how it is, or is it prone to metaphor, to ideology, to exaggeration? Is this a document of corroded youth, of terrified adulthood, or of artistry for its own sake, spirited and eye-catching but a wee bit opportunistic? Where is the dull suburban boredom, the hours of bad TV and bottomless gossip, that would most likely alternate with—indeed, contextualize—Tracy's and Evie's flights of hormonal fury? Why is every scene at the same basic pitch of hysteria, and will parents, teachers, or other viewers be prompted to miss the signs of teen-age aimlessness in their own environments because they don't recognize the high-octane, high-drama, splice-a-minute chaos of this film? The odd double-ending, which thankfully withholds any easy assurances, doesn't resolve much confusion, either.

In the end, then, Thirteen makes a powerful and credible emotional appeal but it registers much too histrionically to persuade us of its truth—which, uncomfortably, is what the movie most wants to do. It offers one stunning performance, from an actress who clearly believes in the film (Hunter is credited as an executive producer) but who nonetheless labors at every minute to either focus the movie at its moments of near-dispersal or deepen the movie in its stretches of pure cliché. Hunter is transfixing, and the movie's raucous, plaintive attempts to open our eyes is transfixing, but they are not transfixing in the same way. One is clearly a disciplined, artistic accomplishment; the other smacks of an unevenly disciplined, unevenly artistic response to the very problem of social and generational undiscipline. The movie pulls you in so many directions, and its stated goals are so often at odds with the experience of watching it, that the film's disarray is ultimately more interesting than the kinds of disarray it means to represent. I wouldn't want to see many films like this, or any without a world-ranking actress around to hold on for the project's dear life—but, for whatever jumble of reasons, I'm still glad I saw this one. B–


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress: Holly Hunter

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Evan Rachel Wood
Best Supporting Actress: Holly Hunter

Other Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Best Director (Dramatic)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Debut Performance (Reed)
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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