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
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.