Evan Rachel Wood
Deborah Kara Unger
1 Hr., 39 Mins.
Thirteen July 24, 2020
he first thing we see in Thirteen (2003), Catherine Hardwicke’s contrivedly edgy teen drama, is a couple of 13-year-old girls, Tracy and Evie (Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed), engaged in a fist fight. This isn’t a typical schoolyard brawl, though. The two are perched on Tracy’s bed, and decide, for kicks, to take turns hitting each other between bursts of laughter to both discover what it would feel like and also see
who will raise the white flag first. Who is better at self-destruction? (This was preceded by some casual inhalant-taking.) The message of this scene is that these girls are out of control, and that if someone doesn’t intervene soon, a bruised face might in hindsight seem innocuous. When we move on to the next scene — prefaced by a title card that says “four months earlier,” complete with a dramatic ellipsis — one can infer that at least for one of these girls, this sort of thing might have been considered out of the ordinary not that long ago.
Thirteen, co-written by Hardwicke and the then-14-year-old Reed, is based on the latter’s experiences as a young teen — a period ostensibly infused with rampant drug use, shoplifting, promiscuity, and other rebellions. (The twosome penned the movie in a little less than a week in 2002; they had had a connection earlier because Hardwicke had dated Reed’s dad at one point.) The Tracy character — a reserved seventh-grader at the top of her class — is the fill-in for Reed. Reed herself plays a school cool girl who tries to seem older than she is and has an insecure home life. She engages in every sort of hedonistic behavior she can to expend autonomy over her life. Naturally, she’s a textbook bad influence once she and Tracy become friends. (Their first adventure involves stealing merchandise from a clothing store.) The movie is about Tracy’s half-guilt-ridden descent into self-destruction as encouraged by Evie, with the former’s mother, Melanie (Holly Hunter), a caring hairdresser who runs a kid’s salon out of the family home, increasingly unsure how to exert any control over her not-long-ago manageable daughter.
Thirteen has been shot primarily with hand-held cameras to evoke a documentary-like coldness — foster feelings of rawness, helplessness. The performances — particularly the ones from Wood and Hunter, who, respectively, powerfully portray youthful bendability and frazzled defenselessness — have an improvised-feeling nakedness. Together these key characteristics bind the feature’s commitment to a look and feel of realism — the sense that this is as gritty an account of a dramatized true story as you can get. Don’t mistake it, Hardwicke has warned, as some kind of universal tale.
Thirteen, though occasionally emotionally lucid, predominantly flounders. This is imitation cinéma vérité at its most inelegant; it’s made especially noisy by the hyperactive, early MTV-style transitions. The last act of the feature is pointedly (and clunkily) shot with an undersaturated filter to really make obvious the reality that shit has truly hit the fan. Stylistic naturalism is supposed to make a movie feel effortless — like everything we’re seeing has almost accidentally been caught on camera and the director just decided to roll with it. Thirteen is plainly effortful. Hardwicke, however, has said that the look of the film had more to do with its having a low budget than a desire to make the movie seem somehow realer.
The movie does dally in the memory, especially since this is an account of 13-year-olds making bad with a co-sign from someone who lived something similar. But it has the bluster of a spectacle. The movie is so condemnatory on the whole that it accidentally demonizes what seems like any sort of illicit behavior — even a transitory act of youthful sin, which, with limitations, is not that unusual or unhealthy a thing to partake in when growing up. A lot of it’s uncritically racialized, too: Slate critic David Edelstein astutely pointed out that “while Thirteen isn’t explicitly racist, the scenes in which [Tracy is] surrounded by tall, good-looking black boys seem meant to set off anti-miscegenation bells in even the most resolute white liberals.” Thirteen is ultimately about as thick-stroked and (perhaps inadvertently) fear-stoking as an after-school special, just better-acted and more idiosyncratically made. C