One, two, three, go. That's about how long it takes for "Thirteen's" leading teenager
Tracy to transform from a poetry writing, innocent, honors student into a drugged out,
thieving, sexually active problem child. Marking the directorial debut of long-time
production designer, Catherine Hardwicke, and combining the writing input of teenager
Nikki Reed (also starring in the film), "Thirteen" is a scary movie about teenage
corruption and reckless abandon. It's also about parents who fail to recognize the
warning signs and realize their child's troubles until it's too late. Taking the
coming-of-age genre to the extreme, the film accelerates rapidly from an after school
special into a full-blown house of horrors, with unflinching detail and gritty realism.
Tracy is an overachieving seventh grade student, conscientious about her poetry and
homework and helpful around the house. She's a good girl at heart, but nearing the
tender age of thirteen, where appearance means everything and rebellion against one's
parents the norm. Fueling her rebellious streak: Her mother (Hunter) and best friend
is easily recognized for her flaws - a recovering alcoholic, a divorcee, and hard
working beautician living beyond her means. Tracy's father is rarely in the picture,
too busy with work to spend any time with her. And her brother Mason seems to get
away with murder. Even more agonizing is the fact that her mother can barely afford
to buy clothes for her, so she's constantly ridiculed at school.
But Tracy's whole world changes in an instant when a brief encounter with Evie, the most popular
girl in junior high, turns into an unexpected friendship. The two become inseparable and
engage in a reckless adventure - experimenting with sex, drugs, and alcohol; mutilating their
bodies in different ways; acting violently; and participating in criminal acts. While
these activities are going on, Tracy's mother seems too overwhelmed with her own problems
to notice. But that soon changes as Evie moves in and begins to [manipulate] everyone in
her path. Though many things are translucent, there are some things that are difficult to
hide: Tracy begins to fail her assignments and classes, she gives her friends the cold
shoulder, she destroys her trust with her brother, and she continually deceives and
manipulates her mother. As her downward spiral goes deeper and deeper, it would seem the
only way for reality to come calling would be for her to hit the inevitable rock bottom.
"Thirteen" opens with a terribly disturbing scene - two girls experimenting with
hallucinogens strike each other in the face with their fists, laughingly, unable
to feel any pain. It is a stark preview of the heavy material to come.
Shockingly similar in tone as "Kids," the 1995 Larry Clark film about a group of
New York City adolescents experimenting with drugs, sex, and mischief, "Thirteen"
is a teen tragedy of monstrous proportions. Both films are brutal depictions of
teenagers living in turmoil, unaware of the consequences their actions bring. In
"Kids," a group of sexually active teenage boys is constantly in search of their
next conquest, unaware of the dangers presented by AIDS, teenage pregnancy, and
drug addiction. In "Thirteen," Tracy is na?ve about her behavior, the impact it
has on her family, her friends, and her self esteem. Although she experiments in
much the same way as the "Kids" do, she is fortunate enough to have a safety net
to catch her when she falls.
The overall effect of this film will hit parents of teenagers much harder than teenagers
themselves. It's a horrifying portrait of reckless abandon, particularly kids who come from
broken homes and parents who aren't as attentive as they should be. There's no question that
Melanie loves her daughter, but here, her weaknesses are fully exposed, pushing Tracy down
the path of no return. Try as she might, she sets a bad example for her daughter: she's a
recovering alcoholic, she brings in a variety of boyfriends from her AA meetings, she tries
to hide her smoking habits, she brings her work into her home, she lives beyond her means in
a house that she can't afford, all the while ignoring the signs of her daughter's
transformation. And when she finally realizes that things have gone too far ("Tracy was
playing with Barbies before she met Evie!"), it could be too late.
For me, the most disturbing part of the film is not the evolution of Tracy into a drugged
out, sexually active mess; rather, it's the spinning camera movements, the abrupt edits, and
the five-second scenes. My guess is that director Catherine Hardwicke wanted to create a
realistic drama by using a steady cam, making it feel less staged and more authentic; however,
it comes off as being overly done, as if it were meant for an audience with attention deficit
disorder. The camera is constantly moving, even when focusing in on one subject. And the
nausea continues as scenes are interspersed rapidly like a music video, regardless of whether
they have a point or are even supposed to move the story along. Had this film been shot
without the filter and without the steady cam and five-second scenes, it would have been
less of a distraction.
The trio of actresses in this film give a strong, realistic performance. Holly
Hunter is especially fabulous as Tracy's mother Melanie, a woman trying to do the
right thing, but juggling far too many things to spend quality time with her
daughter. And newcomers Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed were perfectly cast as
Tracy and Evie, two girls on opposite sides of the adolescent age, both struggling
to survive. It helps that both were relative unknowns in the acting world because
it adds a sort of normalcy to the picture, yet their performances in this picture
are indicators that that unknown status may change very soon.
"Thirteen" is a graphic, in-your-face account of teenage issues to the extreme.
Based on the real life experiences of Nikki Reed, it breaks any and all
preconceptions of what teenage life is supposed to be and projects the worst-case
scenario. Though the cinematography is unsteady and the script misses some
key elements, the film is not an irresponsible, pointless mess. On the contrary,
it makes a statement about teenagers and their home life, about what happens when
parents fail to spend time with their kids, and it deals with real life feelings
and emotions that teenagers are experiencing while coming of age. Despite the
heavy subject matter and bleak outlook, it conveys a positive message, that no
matter the circumstances, you must take time to listen and spend time with your
kids. And maybe, just maybe, you can keep them from growing up too fast.