Thirteen, the start of the turbulent teenage years, typically a very difficult and explosive time, not only for the new teenager but for the parents as well. Many films have taken on this rite of passage, some with a comic approach, others a more bitter sweet one. With the new film ‘Thirteen’ we see this tumultuous period in the first person, through the eyes of a girl that has just turned thirteen. The screenplay for this film was co-written by Nikki Reed when she was just thirteen; she acted in the film at the ripe old age of fourteen. This in itself provided a degree of realism that has rarely been seen on the screen. Ms Reed plays Evie, a parent’s worse nightmare. She comes into the life of Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), ostensibly a good, mild mannered girl and changes things for the worse. The two girls attend a progressive junior high school, something that is becoming more common now. We know how progressive it is since class assignments include reports on popular pop culture icons. Evie is one of the popular crowd, that group of kids at school that everyone wants to be. She has attained this distinction which her cool, mostly stolen clothing, dismissive attitude and apparent knowledge of sex. As Tracy is pulled deeper into the influential sphere of Evie we witness first hand the destruction of a typical good girl, a fall from grace that every parent worries about. We the adults in the audience get a character to identify with, Tracy’s mother played by Holly Hunter. Wrapped up in her own problems she is not able to compete with the overwhelming new influences coming to a focus on her daughter. As adults time has distanced us from the feelings a thirteen year old experience. Perhaps as we become adults a sort of amnesia takes over and we forget the incredible power peer pressure exerts. When I was this age the major concern was that new pimple and the H-Bomb, well, at least that is how I remember it. Having a daughter that is just passing out of the teens it would appear that the social pressures today are fundamentally the same only incredibly escalated by the ever present media that dominates teens today. It starts with a new bracelet, a different top and jeans, perhaps a strange piercing, small things that taken by themselves seem innocent but actually betray the child’s need for social acceptance. Here we witness this power as Evie draws Tracy along to the heights of popularity, the Holy Grail for the teenager.
Strange that Ms Reed did not play ‘herself’ in this film. She lived the role of Tracy and perhaps the power of her performance comes from acting out the influences she experienced from her own Evie. In any case her presentation here is nothing sort of incredible. There is an innate drive and emotionally commitment to her role. Having lived the story Reed gives the audience an unvarnished look into this life. Her on screen chemistry with co-star Evan Rachel Wood is convincing. It is natural that the two bond so fast and closely. Tracy wants to be like Evie and Evie needs to feel wanted. This strange mentor-student relationship is the definition of codependency. Once Evie all but moves in with Tracy the few restrictions she had are gone and the spiral deepens, fast. As a parent I found the performance by Holly Hunter the most frightening. She wants to be a good mother, to provide for her daughter but she is trapped in the situation. In order to provide for Tracy she has to all but ignore her. Hunter plays the single mother without apology, in a very mater of fact way that so many are forced to live. Somewhat like the mother in ET, Hunter is unaware of what is actually going on until it is long past the time for realistic intervention.
The film was directed by co-author Catherine Hardwicke. She apparently respected the input from her young writing partner and in this freshman directing effort the results are brilliant. The story is told in an episodic fashion, perfectly reflecting the moments of a teenager’s life that affect its course. The film is gritty, the opposite of how we want to view our children. The overt drug and sexual experimentation may make us cringe, but it is so well staged that we cannot help but to continue to watch. I couldn’t help comparing this film to the 1995 Larry Clark opus, Kids. Like Kids it shows just how little influence we have over our kids, television, music videos and movies do far more to shape how they want to live. The film received a well deserved ‘R’ rating which ironically precludes the age group concerned from seeing it without a parent present (well at least in theory). There is almost a documentary feel to this work. The lighting is natural, nothing seems overly set up. The use of the color palette is excellent, from the drab colors used in the beginning and end of the film to the golden peak times and garish over saturation as the girls circle the drain. Color here is a visual indication of the emotional state of the characters. The composition of each frame is so well done that it is difficult to believe that this is the first film directed by Ms Hardwicke.
The DVD is better done than most independent films are afforded. It’s better than many main stream films get. It is presented in both an anamorphic 1.85:1 version with a separate full screen version available. Both have commentaries by the two co-authors, Hardwicke and Reed as well as one featuring co-star Evan. I would have liked the viewpoint of Holly Hunter, just to give the other perspective. There are a couple of deleted scenes with an optional commentary and a couple of Easter Eggs for you to find. Add to this a making of featurettes and you have a full and encompassing experience. The audio is presented in a full Dolby 5.1. The provided sound field gives a realistic ambience. The video is gritty at times, underlying the dire circumstances of the characters. While this is a difficult film to watch it represents an important milestone in American cinema. For once the topic of coming of age is seen fully from the teen’s perspective. The unblinking eye here may not display what you wan to see but it is what is going on in the lives of our children.