SEPTEMBER 18, 2003
Tween Nightmare
Middle School's Pressures and Horrors in 'Thirteen'
By Jeremy Mathews
  These not-so-innocent girls are even more corrupt than they appear, especially considering that they are the titular age of the film, 'Thirteen.'.

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Written by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed
Produced by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Michael London
Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Sisto, Brady Corbet, Deborah Kara Unger, Kip Pardue, Sarah Clarke, and Vanessa Anne Hudgens
Rated R, although 13-year-olds are doing the stuff
(out of four)

Parents of a 13-year-old child would probably view “Thirteen” in the same way they’d view “Psycho”—minus any entertainment gained from the sensation of horror. The film mixes the adolescent’s uneasy need to belong with sex, drugs and mental illness, all in a big, scary city. The result isn’t pleasant, but it’s effective.

Director Catherine Hardwicke co-wrote the screenplay with actress Nikki Reed, who offered many of her personal experiences to the film. Reed plays Evie, a negative influence on the film’s hero, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood).

The opening scene is a disturbing flash forward, in which two young girls get high and beat each other up.

This leads into the main narrative, when the heroine still behaves like a human being. Tracy attends her first day in Los Angeles’ Portola Middle School, where she finds that her clothes and a straight-A attitude don’t win her much of a reputation, especially with hip girls like Evie. Hardwicke’s camerawork and editing create a rapid-fire survey of the girls’ clothing items as status symbols.

Soon, Tracy adopts an attitude in order to fit in, befriends Evie and starts a downward spiral when she steals a woman’s purse and takes her friend on a shopping spree.

Hardwicke’s hand-held 16-mm camerawork, while occasionally clashing with other stylistic flourishes, brings the same type of feel that the co-screenwriter’s age suggests—that we’re seeing a rough look at what being 13 is like.

Shortly after the friendship begins, Evie asks if she can move into Tracy’s house, saying that her guardian’s (Debora Kara Unger) boyfriend beats her. The scenario begins to explain Evie’s need to be popular and use her status to exclude others. She convinces Tracy and her mom, Melanie, to let her live with them.

Holly Hunter displays genuine frustration as Melanie, a divorced, recovering alcoholic. Her drug-addicted ex-boyfriend has recently returned, apparently in better condition. Tracy, however, wants him out of the house.

While dealing with her own problems, Melanie is unable to help Tracy as the girl’s disdain for parental figures grows. Hunter’s portrayal of a parent trying her best comes across as very real. The scenes that show Tracy turning conversations into screaming matches are realistic, but amazingly hard to watch.

Films with heroes who are stuck in a mindset run into a common problem—the film becomes stuck in the mindset as well. In most cases, it comes off as indulgent instead of true. Hardwicke manages to make “Thirteen” work by turning the perspective toward Melanie and Hunt’s performance, with which the audience can identify.

While Reed’s true story inspired the screenplay, the details were very likely significantly exaggerated for storytelling purposes. While there’s nothing wrong with making changes for drama if it works, the story might have played better if Reed and Hardwicke toned things down. Body piercings, sex and drugs appear excessively for shock value, almost tipping the story overboard. The film might have had more universal appeal if it had reigned in the insanity to a more common level.

But in telling this specific story, the actors and filmmakers create a world with strong performances and direction that make the nightmare believable.

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