You can't argue that the film Thirteen doesn't know its teenagers. It gets all the obsessions and silly little dramas just right - the autobiographical script was written by one of the film's stars when she herself was thirteen - but just knowing the milieu isn't always going to create gripping drama.
After an opening scene in which 13-year-old Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) and her friend Evie (Nikki Reed, the writer) suck gas from a can of compressed air, laugh hysterically, and slap each other senseless, Thirteen flashes back to four months earlier, in order that we can get an idea of how Tracy got this way. Tracy's family situation is nothing spectacular, what with a distant father who only occasionally pays child support and a flaky mom (Holly Hunter) who scrapes by as a hairdresser and keeps letting Brady, her former cokehead boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto), sleep over. Her life seems pretty dull and irritating, so when Tracy ditches her nerdy friends to suck up to Evie, the lead Heather in the school's hottest clique, it makes an adolescent kind of sense. But when that friendship quickly morphs into an unending stream of shoplifting and drinking, Tracy also starts lashing out at her mother and pretty much everyone else around her, except Evie, who has essentially moved herself into Tracy's bedroom.
It's to the film's credit that, even as sympathetic as it is to Tracy's growing pains, it never really tries to excuse her behavior. Tracy clearly views her mother and Brady as losers, but they actually come across as well-meaning people doing their best to get by, so when Tracy tears into them - egged on by the quietly evil Evie - it comes across as mean-spirited and has the effect of creating sympathy for the adults instead of the kid. Also, the film usually eschews the easy-answer approach so common to adolescent fiction and drama. Although Evie is definitely the instigator of Tracy's acting-out, we see that Tracy was troubled long before, judging by the legacy of self-inflicted scars on her wrist.
As impressively complex as it is, Thirteen is nevertheless hampered by its schizophrenic mannerisms. On the one hand, it seems to want to speak with to its target audience of adolescent girls with an earnest, WB-esque pop soundtrack and quick-cut montages. On the other, Thirteen has a desperate urge to feel real and gritty, thus we get a plethora of loosely-scripted scenes that often dissolve into screaming fits and tussling - some of the rougher scenes between Wood and Hunter are the kind of thing that De Niro and Pesci used to indulge in for Scorsese.
In more experienced hands, this half-gloss, half-realist technique could have achieved a kind of supreme pop perfection: MTV by way of Cassavetes. But first-time director Catherine Hardwicke (who worked on the script with Reed), though she's given the film a graceful look on what was obviously a tiny budget, can't seem to make the material matter. The result of this is that a lot of the rebellion on display can seem exploitative, in a borderline Larry Clark (Kids) manner. Also, Hardwicke is unable to coax performances out of her cast that are much more than serviceable, with the exception of Hunter and Reed, who, though not an actress, makes an indelibly villainous impression with a minimum of effort.
As a film about 13 year-olds written by a 13-year-old, Thirteen should have been much, much worse, but its scattered moments of clearly-realized adolescent angst are scuttled by a wandering and frequently juvenile approach.
The DVD is a jabbery affair, with all the major cast and crew ganging up on a commentary track, plus a making-of flick and 10 deleted scenes.
All eyes on the teens.