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Thirteen (R)
Fox Searchlight
Official Site
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Producers: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Michael London
Written by: Catherine Hardwicke, Nikki Reed
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Holly Hunter, Nikki Reed, Jeremy Sisto, Brady Corbet, Deborah Unger, Sarah Clarke, Vanessa Anne Hudgens

Rating: out of 5

Thirteen is about a young teenage girl who confronts serious issues like drinking, sex, and drug abuse, all while coping with the unfair pressure society places on young women. It is every bit as subtle and nuanced as that description, which is to say that you’re going to get exactly what you expect, with one fun exception, a scene in which Jeremy Sisto, as a reformed crackhead, demonstrates a “Zen chicken” trick where you can move a chicken’s body all around but the head stays in place. It’s funny, nonsensical, inexplicable, and about the only thing in the movie whose psychological ramifications and background aren’t laid out in stifling detail.

In a sense, Thirteen is admirably “honest.” Co-written by then-14-year-old Nikki Reed in (well-publicized) semi-autobiographical fashion, the film undeniably is wired into a sort of LA, Melrose Ave. lifestyle pretty flawlessly. Not since Clueless have we had such an up-close look. But the two films aren’t actually all that different: It’s just that the kids in Clueless were allowed to have fun with their substances, while the ones in Thirteen are symbolic of big, honking Problems. Evan Rachel Wood is the “good” kid (Tracy) who turns bad, while the one whose story this is, Nikki Reed, gets to indulge in some curious self-flagellation by playing the girl who gets her into the oh-so-horrific world of sex-for-drugs, self-abuse, and other problematic aspects of teen life. Meanwhile, as Tracy’s mom, Holly Hunter floats on the periphery of things, not intervening until way too late because a) she’s too busy sleeping with ex-crackhead Sisto and b) she’s so weirdly immature and teenager-like herself that, even when it’s obvious that her daughter’s stealing clothes and cash like crazy, she doesn’t intervene because, as she later yells hysterically, “I didn’t know it’d gone this far.” Message learned: Smoking/drinking/theft are all perfectly OK… unless you do too much of them.

Thirteen starts with a shot of Wood getting slapped in the face, laughing hysterically, bleeding, and yelling “I can’t feel anything.” The film rarely dips below this level of subtlety, spelling everything out in bite-sized doses. Check it: When Wood first shows up on Melrose Avenue to go shopping, there’s a prominently displayed ad which reads “Beauty is truth.” After she freaks out and loses her friends, the same poster appears, but now that line is scratched over. Symbolism! Look: When Wood pops some acid, we know that she’s feeling it because color filters are helpfully pulled out. Innovative! Whenever Wood’s going through a crisis, guitar feedback squalls on the soundtrack. Parallels!

Other aspects of the film, though, are more worrying than merely harmless. To wit: Lily-white Wood, in her “good kid” phase, is friends with (presumably smart/dutiful/etc.) Asian girls, whom she then dumps for Reed. The problem is, Reed is friends with a bunch of (gasp!) black kids, which cues a lot of hip-hop tracks and sets up a rather simplistic conclusion: Black culture sucks. I doubt this was what Catherine Hardwicke set out to say, but that’s how it sometimes looks, and when a movie is so specifically rooted in a very specific place and lifestyle, you should probably be more careful than that. (Naming your movie Thirteen, which allows viewers to extrapolate the conclusion that this movie is about the struggles of 13-year-old girls everywhere, doesn’t help much.) Other parts of the film are even goofier, like implying that getting your tongue and navel pierced are somehow not just fashion decisions but horrific acts of defiance which should clue in any parent that something is Very Wrong.

The best thing about Thirteen is that it isn’t just straight-up condemnation. Despite the rote psychology which demands that Wood and Reed go through all this simply because (apparently) they have bad family lives, the film makes hanging out and getting high actually look fun, unlike, say, Kids, another children-in-crisis film which made sex and drugs look about as appealing as dry-humping a ferret. Yet even on an ecstatic trippy high, running through sprinklers at night, we must be cued by an ominous song (Clinic’s excellent “The Equalizer,” by the way) to know that things are not OK, and will have Consequences. Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion in the film is that sex is bonding not between the partners, but between the two girls. Eyeing each other as they make out, they seem far more bent on impressing each other than either gratifying the guy or getting anything out of it themselves.

The scariest thing about Thirteen isn’t the kids, it’s the parents. Here, responsibility means you’re either out of the halfway house and struggling to maintain sobriety (as in Sisto’s case), meaning you have to clear out when things get too bad because it’s fucking with your head, or, in the only other example of an adult character showing any self-restraint, stopping yourself from having a threesome with your jailbait neighbors.

Thirteen ends with two freeze-frames, one of Wood waking up to face a symbolic new day and one of her on a playground merry-go-round, screaming. Her old angst and new possibilities are book-ended, reminding us of how much she’s had to go through and how many obstacles remain in her way before she can become a happy, well-adjusted kid. It’s her age and rage, no doubt, but Thirteen makes the mistake of universalizing a very specific time and place. After that, the small matter of hysterically pitched constant dramatics becomes pretty minor. Toward the end, Wood’s dad shows up and asks, “Can anyone tell me what the problem is, in a nutshell?” All the characters treat this as an exasperatingly unreasonable request and stalk off but, unfortunately, any viewer can easily comply.

—Vadim Rizov


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