By Rob Blackwelder
A frank and unnerving depiction of the peer-pressure slippery slope scaled by kids hungry for cool cache in the callous caste system of teenage social politics, "Thirteen" is a movie that rings startlingly true, thanks in no small part to co-writer Nikki Reed -- currently 15 years of age -- whose own experiences in a Los Angeles junior high served as fodder for the plot.
Told largely from the amorphous perspective of 7th grader Tracy (the compellingly natural, pubescently lovely Evan Rachel Wood), the film is a grippingly reckless joyride through impetuous shoplifting, impulsive piercings, improvised inebriation and rushed sexuality by a promising, once-ingenuous young girl who has yet to form a real sense of self.
Dying to buddy up to Evie, her school's early-blooming queen bad-girl who is lusted after by all the boys (and played by the prematurely sultry Reed herself), Tracy progressively throws caution, schoolwork, self-respect, loyalty, a close bond with her mother (Holly Hunter) and all her misgivings to the wind. A blank slate eager to be drawn upon, she falls deeply under the influence of this girl whose lifestyle of borderline depravity is itself a precarious experiment in ego-fulfillment and a byproduct of an unhinged upbringing.
Director Catherine Hardwicke -- a talented production designer on films like "Tombstone," "Three Kings" and "Vanilla Sky" -- started writing the script with Reed, the daughter of her boyfriend at the time, as a creative outlet for the girl, who seemed headed down a potentially wayward path. The result is easy to believe yet painful to accept -- and impossible to turn away from.
Because the film is told through Tracy's eyes there is an anxious underpinning to almost every scene, but you also get a sense of fun from her recklessness -- even when our instincts as an observer tell us there's danger, as when Evie pushes Tracy into a sloppy jailbait seduction of a much older surfer-dude neighbor. Hardwicke isn't making an After School Special here. "Thirteen" has a sharp, disorienting bite that stays with you for weeks afterwards.
Fourteen-year-old Evan Rachel Wood, who already showed a lot of Kirsten Dunst-like potential in last year's "Little Secrets" and "S1m0ne," carries the film with a fearless, potent performance of mood swings (in one scene from apprehension to elation to tearful resentment all over her seeming acceptance into Evie's clique), self-doubt and hidden psychoneuroses as she rips herself from the trappings of childhood and quickly traps herself in an almost unrecoverable spiral for the sake of popularity.
Reed makes a hell of an impression too, manipulating both Tracy and her haggard, heartbroken divorcee mother (the incredible Holly Hunter). "Her boyfriend hits me," Evie cries and lies to Tracy's mom (but deliberately out of Tracy's earshot) while angling for a place to stay away from her irresponsible drunkard guardian (Deborah Kara Unger).
Hardwicke and Hunter also do a beautiful job of placing the audience in the mother's shoes. A recovering alcoholic emotionally roughed-up by her divorce, and therefore trying to walk an intangible line between being a disciplinarian and being a cool mom lest she lose her daughter too, Mom bites her tongue as Tracy grows up too fast, leading to an excruciating moment in which she realizes her silence has backfired: She watches as the girl leaves the house with provocative thong underwear riding up out of her low-cut hip-huggers, feeling like a helpless, clueless bystander in the Lolitaization of her daughter.
Only Tracy's father (D.W. Moffett) is less than 100-percent authentic. A self-absorbed businessman, he's an obligatory, one-note, one-scene narrative pit stop who comes to "have a talk" with Tracy, at one point answering his continuously ringing cell phone to reveal where his priorities lay.
Playing out over the course of a school year in which Tracy goes from a very promising student who writes insightful poetry to a class-ditcher who may have to repeat the 7th grade, "Thirteen" does offer a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, but Hardwicke isn't about to provide any sharp relief.
A visualist by profession, Hardwicke's cherry-on-top contribution to consummate the film's mesmeric atmosphere is the striking cinematography of Elliot Davis, which makes brilliant use of dutch angles, bleach bypass (a process that leaves a layer of grainy silver on the print) and other optical techniques that heighten the sense of instability, grit and disorientation.
"Thirteen" doesn't preach or pat its audience on the head, and its goal isn't shock value, like "Kids," Larry Clark's unnervingly overstated document of dysfunctional teen sexuality. It's a movie that connects every audience member with the soul of every character and makes you feel what it's like in the darker corners of modern American adolescence.
Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Friday 7th November 2003
Box Office USA: $4.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $4.6M
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Production compaines: Sound for Film, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Working Title Films, Antidote Films (I)
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Fresh: 122 Rotten: 28
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood as Tracy Louise Freeland, Nikki Reed as Evie Zamora, Vanessa Hudgens as Noel, Holly Hunter as Melanie 'Mel' Freeland, Brady Corbet as Mason Freeland, Jeremy Sisto as Brady, Ulysses Estrada as Rafa, Sarah Blakley-Cartwright as Medina, Jenicka Carey as Astrid, Sarah Clarke as Birdie, Jasmine Di Angelo as Kayla, Tessa Ludwick as Yumi, Kip Pardue as Luke, Cece Tsou as Businesswoman, Jamison Yang as Science Teacher
Also starring: Deborah Kara Unger
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