Thirteen

on August 20, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
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Thirteen -- that in-between age when, to quote the age group's perhaps most popular singer, “I'm not a girl, not yet a woman.” It's a confusing time of transition, in which cutesy socks, stuffed animals and Barbie dolls are eschewed for the trappings of what is perceived as adulthood: belly shirts, low-slung blue jeans exposing thong underwear, piercings. Girls this age may look and play-act like grown women, but they're still little girls, their actions dictated by raging hormones and unruly emotions as they scream hysterically at the slightest provocation. Troubling dalliances into shoplifting and petty theft lead to more alarming experiments with drugs, sex, cutting. At least, that is, in writer/director Catherine Hardwicke's “thirteen,” in which the clincher is when the main character Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) is informed by her teacher that she will have to repeat seventh grade, not because of the harshness of the news but because the audience, in that moment, is reminded that Tracy is in seventh grade.

It's a schizophrenic debut that inspires conflicted reactions. If it's meant to shock, it does. That it's co-written by then-13-year-old co-star Nikki Reed is even more disturbing -- these incidents on film don't emanate solely from the experience of an adult but also from a girl that age. But more troubling is if the film is meant to be representative of the teenage experience in America today.

Hardwicke borrows liberally from a grab-bag of visual tricks--including handheld camerawork, a grainy picture, zooms in and out, fast motion and quick cuts--for a stylized look that emulates the hyper state-of-mind of the film's subjects, but the effects sometimes feel forced, as though calculatingly choreographed for an MTV audience.

Likewise, one of the major behavior patterns depicted in the film is manipulation, as Tracy pressures her mother Melanie (Holly Hunter) to take in her best friend Evie (Reed) with horror stories about domestic abuse. One suspects that Evie is lying to Melanie to get her way, and, appropriately, laughs at this juvenile strategy. The problem is, it's never clear that she is lying, and so is the humor unintended?

What salvages the film is the performances. Wood is frighteningly convincing as the hysterical main character, and Reed is seductive as her guide to the dark side. But it's Hunter who earns Sundance's Tribute to Independent Vision accolade this year as a single mom at a loss as to what to do with a daughter spiraling out of control. She is at once taken aback at the radical changes taking place before her eyes but mutely accepting in a desperate attempt to remain her child's best friend; she opens her heart and home to Evie, but only to a point, in the end sacrificing Evie to save Tracy. And ultimately the film does not glamorize the girls' wild lifestyle nor provide pat answers, instead closing on a note of mother-daughter intimacy and hope. Starring Holly Hunter, Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, Jeremy Sisto, Brady Corbet, Deborah Kara Unger and Kip Pardue. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed. Produced by Jeff Levy-Hinte and Michael London. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 100 min.

Tags: Holly Hunter, Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, Jeremy Sisto, Brady Corbet, Deborah Kara Unger, Kip Pardue, Catherine Hardwicke, Jeff Levy-Hinte, Michael London, A Fox Searchlight release, Drama, single mother, best friend, hysterical, seductive, juvenile, humor
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