"An unsettling drug-hazed look at teen growing pains"
(SCREENED AT THE 2003 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL) Just how hard is it to be a teen in our saccharine pop-music MTV culture? Pretty scary according to Thirteen a new film that premiered at Sundance…Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) is starting her first year in junior high. She still hangs out with friends from the neighborhood and plays with Barbie’s. Melanie (Holly Hunter) Tracy’s mom, is a bohemian hearted single parent who has forged a close relationship with her daughter. Tracy decides early that she wants to be popular, no matter the cost. She strategically plans her ascent into the same group as the “hottest chick in school,” Evie. Because Evie is experimenting with drugs, sex and shoplifting, Tracy begins to act in a similar fashion exhibiting a shift in her morals and attitude. Melanie can see that her daughter is changing under the pressures of a new friend but is too involved in the rest of life to act preventatively. Their close relationship starts to strain under the weight of Tracy’s new actions. Soon her harmless experimentation leads to darker and more serious consequences.
Thirteen is the offspring of director/co-writer Catherine Hardwicke and her teenage co-writer Nikki Reed. Reed supposedly culled the story from her own experiences and those of her friends. Hardwicke worked with Reed to rewrite and tailor the tale. The result is a film that feels completely authentic. Nothing is sugar coated for an audience—there were a number of moviegoers who were visibly upset with events portrayed. I must admit that several scenes made me nervous. Hardwicke’s hard editing and fast clip add to the modern feel. But what underscores the movie is the gritty reality of adolescence. It’s a scary process that has marked each of us with scars. This is not the preppy world of She’s All That. I would hazard that this movie is very Californian in its feel and archetypes but that characterization doesn’t exclude it from a wider application.
Hunter’s portrayal elicits sympathy and allows her to exhibit extraordinary vulnerability. She is neither an absent mother nor an overbearing one. Melanie inhabits the real space of modern motherhood just as the movie explores real-time adolescence. The changes in Tracy baffle Melanie in the same way that teenagers will ever be a mystery to their parents. One thing Thirteen does very well is plumbing the deeply complex relationship between mothers and their daughters. Both Hunter and Wood are entirely believable. I’ve heard Thirteen compared to Cinema Verite. While the film is not technically Verite, Hardwicke has certainly found inspiration in the brutal truth theory.
Ultimately, I was alternately drawn in and repelled by Thirteen. Technically, Hardwicke displays a visionary style that could well herald the makings of a new Hollywood big-time director. The performances are genuine and very, very good. Still, the story is difficult and deals in uncomfortable subject matter. Perhaps no one can sit through Thirteen without their own adolescence flickering in the images on screen. It certainly brought out a tumult of emotions within the audience. I had trouble empathizing with Tracy and constantly felt like I was merely looking at her through a window. Sometimes it’s even more difficult to sit through a movie when you recognize the characters in yourself.I don’t anticipate this film to run away at the box office. Thirteen is sure to get distribution and gain some national exposure. It’s worth catching for the performances and the technical chances. Just don’t go expecting Can’t Hardly Wait.
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Los Angeles Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.