When Teen Dreams Turn to Nightmares; Catherine Hardwicke's "Thirteen"
by Peter Brunette
[EDITOR'S NOTE: indieWIRE is proud to present the first installment of Peter Brunette's new regular film reviews column, which will appear on alternate Wednesdays in indieWIRE. Film professor and veteran journalist Brunette has been a contributor to indieWIRE since 2001; he'll now be our lead critic with biweekly movies reviews of films being released theatrically, in addition to his reviews from major film festivals.]
In her flawed but heartfelt new film, "Thirteen," first-time director Catherine Hardwicke has headed off into that distant heart of darkness known as Contemporary Teenage Life and brought back a startling report for us clueless armchair explorers who've remained behind. Actually, we've all been in the general vicinity of these overly familiar environs before ("reality" + hand-held camera + fast cutting = Truth) but our desire for this stuff seems insatiable and, for a beginner, Hardwicke knows the territory very well indeed.
"Thirteen" most closely resembles Larry Clark's troubling "Kids," that gross-out pre-Monica Lewinsky document from 1995, which already seems like a century ago. The scripts of both films have been hyped as the no-holds-barred product of authentic denizens of this lost continent ("Kids" was written by Harmony Korine, still a teen at the time, and "Thirteen" was co-written, with Hardwicke, by the 13-year-old Nikki Reed, who also plays a central role in the film). But while the vision expressed in "Kids" was a thoroughly nihilistic one that seemed aimed at indicting an entire generation and frightening the hell out of their parents, "Thirteen" hedges its bets by pointing out an upsetting new phenomenon without saying exactly how widespread it is. This purposeful ambiguity begins, of course, as early as the film's title.
This is not a movie you see for its plot, which couldn't be more minimalist. Though she's still playing with Barbie dolls, high-achieving seventh-grader Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood, from ABC's drama "Once and Again") is dazzled by the apparent power and popularity of the "hottest girl in the school," Evie (played by Reed) and once she gets her attention, seeks to be like her in all things. Alas, these things turn out to be shoplifting, body-piercing, fellatio, drinking, snorting cocaine, and huffing aerosol fumes -- to which Tracy adds a few of her own bright ideas like anorexia and self-mutilation. Her hairdresser single mom Mel (Holly Hunter), none too stable herself, fights with her ex-husband while taking up with a former addict, Brady (Jeremy Sisto), whom Tracy detests. Mel loves her daughter dearly, and as she witnesses Tracy moving ever further away from her, into self-destruction, comes dangerously close to breaking down herself.
Where "Thirteen" soundly trumps "Kids" is in its rigorous insistence on providing a clear moral compass. "Kids" sometimes seemed to be exploiting the teenage sexual activity it documented not only for its shock value, but also for its own prurience (Clark's recent "Ken Park" is even more egregious in this respect), but "Thirteen" is always very clear that we are to disapprove of the shenanigans these screwed-up kids indulge in. And while we are placed in one or more sexual situations, we actually see very little sex itself, which is, I think, exactly as it should be in a movie about children. Nevertheless -- and here's the trickiest and the best part -- Hardwicke insists on demonstrating that these kids do what they do because it is THRILLING. Her playful editing and camerawork, whose impulsiveness makes the film feel infinitely fresher than it should, replicates the girls' own high spirits, and is used here to jazz things up without ever trying to seduce us. In this, she is miles ahead of the dolts who run the War on Drugs and who will never, ever get anywhere until they finally recognize and admit that, rightly or wrongly, people take drugs because they are fun.
The weakest part of the film comes when Hardwicke allows herself to fall into the "social problem" mode, with its simplistic answers to complex ills. Thus when Tracy begins her peer-driven makeover early in the film, all the advertising that she is bombarded with is pushed into our face (one particularly offensive ad shouts "Beauty Is Truth"), but the point feels too schematic and it pulls us away from the reality of the character that Hardwicke is otherwise at great pains to establish. (Evan Rachel Wood, who's gorgeous as Tracy and holds the screen like she's using Super-Glue, has a bright, bright future ahead of her. Non-professional Nikki Reed is a bit less convincing, but does no serious harm.) Nor is this schematic quality helped in any way by the conventional suggestion that Tracy's vulnerability can be traced back uniquely to her inattentive father.
Much more convincing is Hardwicke's wickedly right-on but subtle exploration of the vicious in-crowd/out-crowd herding that apparently flourishes in the world of teenage girls, at least according to recent accounts in the media. Even better is the film's completely believable depiction of the impenetrable world of the manipulative, hormonally addled early teen. Dumbfounded, powerless adults simply don't stand a chance in the face of pure intransigence. But the absolutely best thing about the film, which I've seen in no other, is its deft, deeply nuanced portrayal of the relationship between the two girls, compounded as it is of envy, competition (sexual and otherwise), love, and not a little homoeroticism.
Hardwicke ends her film with a little gift to the audience. Though Tracy seems to have hit bottom and experienced a tentative, if unspoken rapprochement with her mother, we really have no idea what will happen to her next. In its consistently subtle, for the most part barely-registered appraisals, "Thirteen" admirably avoids one Hollywood temptation after another and, thank God, here too at the end -- when of course those temptations are always at their most enticing.
[PETER BRUNETTE is Professor of English and Cultural Studies at George Mason University, where he directs the Film and Media Studies Program. He has written or edited numerous books on film, including his recently completed book on the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai (forthcoming from University of Illinois Press). He has written about films and festivals for Screen International, Film Quarterly, Film.com, Sight & Sound, the Boston Globe, The New York Times, and other publications. Brunette also serves as the artistic director of the Key Sunday Cinema Club, which has branches in seven cities.]