One, two, three, go. That’s about how long it takes for “Thirteen’s” leading teenager Tracy to transform from a poetry writing, innocent, honors student into a drugged out, thieving, sexually active problem child. Marking the directorial debut of long-time production designer, Catherine Hardwicke, and combining the writing input of teenager Nikki Reed (also starring in the film), “Thirteen” is a scary movie about teenage corruption and reckless abandon. It’s also about parents who fail to recognize the warning signs and realize their child’s troubles until it’s too late. Taking the coming-of-age genre to the extreme, the film accelerates rapidly from an after school special into a full-blown house of horrors, with unflinching detail and gritty realism.
Tracy is an overachieving seventh grade student, conscientious about her poetry and homework and helpful around the house. She’s a good girl at heart, but nearing the tender age of thirteen, where appearance means everything and rebellion against one’s parents the norm. Fueling her rebellious streak: Her mother (Hunter) and best friend is easily recognized for her flaws – a recovering alcoholic, a divorcee, and hard working beautician living beyond her means. Tracy’s father is rarely in the picture, too busy with work to spend any time with her. And her brother Mason seems to get away with murder. Even more agonizing is the fact that her mother can barely afford to buy clothes for her, so she’s constantly ridiculed at school.
But Tracy’s whole world changes in an instant when a brief encounter with Evie, the most popular girl in junior high, turns into an unexpected friendship. The two become inseparable and engage in a reckless adventure – experimenting with sex, drugs, and alcohol; mutilating their bodies in different ways; acting violently; and participating in criminal acts. While these activities are going on, Tracy’s mother seems too overwhelmed with her own problems to notice. But that soon changes as Evie moves in and begins to [manipulate] everyone in her path. Though many things are translucent, there are some things that are difficult to hide: Tracy begins to fail her assignments and classes, she gives her friends the cold shoulder, she destroys her trust with her brother, and she continually deceives and manipulates her mother. As her downward spiral goes deeper and deeper, it would seem the only way for reality to come calling would be for her to hit the inevitable rock bottom.
“Thirteen” opens with a terribly disturbing scene – two girls experimenting with hallucinogens strike each other in the face with their fists, laughingly, unable to feel any pain. It is a stark preview of the heavy material to come. Shockingly similar in tone as “Kids,” the 1995 Larry Clark film about a group of New York City adolescents experimenting with drugs, sex, and mischief, “Thirteen” is a teen tragedy of monstrous proportions. Both films are brutal depictions of teenagers living in turmoil, unaware of the consequences their actions bring. In “Kids,” a group of sexually active teenage boys is constantly in search of their next conquest, unaware of the dangers presented by AIDS, teenage pregnancy, and drug addiction. In “Thirteen,” Tracy is naïve about her behavior, the impact it has on her family, her friends, and her self esteem. Although she experiments in much the same way as the “Kids” do, she is fortunate enough to have a safety net to catch her when she falls.
The overall effect of this film will hit parents of teenagers much harder than teenagers themselves. It’s a horrifying portrait of reckless abandon, particularly kids who come from broken homes and parents who aren’t as attentive as they should be. There’s no question that Melanie loves her daughter, but here, her weaknesses are fully exposed, pushing Tracy down the path of no return. Try as she might, she sets a bad example for her daughter: she’s a recovering alcoholic, she brings in a variety of boyfriends from her AA meetings, she tries to hide her smoking habits, she brings her work into her home, she lives beyond her means in a house that she can’t afford, all the while ignoring the signs of her daughter’s transformation. And when she finally realizes that things have gone too far (“Tracy was playing with Barbies before she met Evie!”), it could be too late.
For me, the most disturbing part of the film is not the evolution of Tracy into a drugged out, sexually active mess; rather, it’s the spinning camera movements, the abrupt edits, and the five-second scenes. My guess is that director Catherine Hardwicke wanted to create a realistic drama by using a steady cam, making it feel less staged and more authentic; however, it comes off as being overly done, as if it were meant for an audience with attention deficit disorder. The camera is constantly moving, even when focusing in on one subject. And the nausea continues as scenes are interspersed rapidly like a music video, regardless of whether they have a point or are even supposed to move the story along. Had this film been shot without the filter and without the steady cam and five-second scenes, it would have been less of a distraction.
The trio of actresses in this film give a strong, realistic performance. Holly Hunter is especially fabulous as Tracy’s mother Melanie, a woman trying to do the right thing, but juggling far too many things to spend quality time with her daughter. And newcomers Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed were perfectly cast as Tracy and Evie, two girls on opposite sides of the adolescent age, both struggling to survive. It helps that both were relative unknowns in the acting world because it adds a sort of normalcy to the picture, yet their performances in this picture are indicators that that unknown status may change very soon.
“Thirteen” is a graphic, in-your-face account of teenage issues to the extreme. Based on the real life experiences of Nikki Reed, it breaks any and all preconceptions of what teenage life is supposed to be and projects the worst-case scenario. Though the cinematography is unsteady and the script misses some key elements, the film is not an irresponsible, pointless mess. On the contrary, it makes a statement about teenagers and their home life, about what happens when parents fail to spend time with their kids, and it deals with real life feelings and emotions that teenagers are experiencing while coming of age. Despite the heavy subject matter and bleak outlook, it conveys a positive message, that no matter the circumstances, you must take time to listen and spend time with your kids. And maybe, just maybe, you can keep them from growing up too fast.
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