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Dustin's Review

Thirteen (2003)
3 Stars

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Holly Hunter, Nikki Reed, Brady Corbet, Jeremy Sisto, Deborah Kara Unger, Sarah Clarke, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Jenicka Carey, Tessa Ludwick, Kip Pardue, Ulysses Estrada, Jasmine Salim, Charles Duckworth, Cynthia Ettinger
2003 – 100 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, self-inflicted violence, drug use, sexual situations, and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 30, 2003.

Being thirteen is a difficult time for anyone. For most, it is merely an endurance test among other peers that eventually blows over. For others, it is a time in which they so crave for attention and acceptance that they will do whatever it takes to fit in. Teenage rebellion, after all, is simply a phase one must go through on their way to becoming a more mature young adult. And for an even fewer group, being thirteen is like a virus that eats you from the outside in, where it seems like everyone else is against you and no one can get through to you, as you carelessly sway toward sex, drugs, and ultimate self-destruction.

Such is the case with Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), a sensitive, straight-A seventh grader who writes poetry in her spare time, still plays with Barbie dolls, and is comfortable enough to always confide in her caring hippie-ish mother, Melanie (Holly Hunter). For all that she symbolizes and everything that she isn't, Tracy finds herself standing on the sidelines as the popular, more experienced girls pass by, wishing that she could be one of them. Her idol is slutty classmate Evie (Nikki Reed), and when Tracy gets up the courage to steal a wallet and treat her to a Melrose Avenue shopping spree, she suddenly finds herself in a whole new world where living on the edge is cool and her loyal old best friends are, like, so not. So quickly does Tracy change from being the good girl to one who smokes pot, huffs fumes, gets her tongue and navel pierced, cuts her arm with a pair of scissors daily, and willingly will sleep with anyone she wants, that Melanie is left in the dust, at first mindboggled and then seriously worried about what has happened to her daughter.

About as far away from most other glossier motion pictures about the teen experience—like "She's All That," for example—as is cinematically possible, "Thirteen" is an absolutely unnerving and stark drama that could be beneficial for parents to watch and serve as a wake-up call for teenagers similar to Tracy. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, the film garners much of its unusual power and honesty from a screenplay that Hardwicke merely touched up after then-13-year-old Nikki Reed wrote it, based on her own experiences. For any writer, this screenplay would ring out as an undoubted accomplishment. That it was composed by a just barely teenage writer is awe-inspiring.

In her astonishing acting debut, Nikki Reed portrays the heavily influential Evie not simply as a vicious manipulator, but as a young girl who is severely hurting inside and can't seem to figure out where she belongs. There is real depth to Reed's tricky supporting performance, and because she experienced this story first-hand only makes its subject matter hit closer to home. In real life, however, Reed was not Evie, but heroine Tracy, who went from being a good student who loved horses to some sort of monstrous and endangered doppleganger of her former self. In order to get her feelings out after an ultimate revelation concerning her suddenly out-of-control life, she chose to write about it, and "Thirteen" is the superbly realized outcome.

To encapsulate a gritty, you-are-there feel to her images, director Hardwicke employed cinematographer Elliot Davis (2002's "White Oleander") with a DV camera, and the results are surely everything she had hoped for and more. The camerawork is jittery, swirling, and as the film moves on, the colors seem to dissipate, sucking the life out of Tracy in the process. This very notion comes to a point late in the film when Tracy is sent to the principal for missing yet another major class project. Making a pit-stop in the bathroom, she looks at herself in the mirror—a grim portrait of her former self—and is disgusted by what she has become, yet has no idea how to turn back.

In one of the most courageous and emotionally raw performances in years, Evan Rachel Wood (2002's "Simone") delivers a powerhouse performance that runs the gamut from innocent child to vixeny seductress to raging monster. Wood was 14 at the time of filming, and the things she has been asked to do could not have been easy for her. Nonetheless, she plows through her role with stunning force, able to not only change her emotions but also her physical appearance with nothing more than a gaze of the eye. Wood, who likely has not experienced what Tracy does through the course of the movie, is so scarily believable that it is as if she has mystically channeled someone who has. Most of all, she understands Tracy, and all of the pain and anger and disquieting insecurities that go along with her.

Director Catherine Hardwicke wisely depicts Tracy's startling transformation without laying the blame on any one thing. Hearing stories on daytime talk shows about rebellious teenagers, it is easy to place the blame on the parents, but how could one do that in this case, when Tracy's mother, Melanie, is so open and loving toward her daughter? Melanie is not perfect by any means—she is a recovering alcoholic and runs a sort of shelter in her house for other recovering addicts who need a place to stay—but she isn't an uncaring parent. Holly Hunter (2002's "Moonlight Mile") poignantly injects Melanie with such vulnerability as she tries, and fails, to get through to Tracy, that it is sometimes almost difficult to watch.

"Thirteen" is so very strong in so many different ways that it is a shame there are a few missteps along the way. Evie's guardian, Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), whom she calls her cousin, is unevenly written, and one never really gets a firm grasp on who she is. In one scene, she appears to be drugged out and recuperating from an extensive face-lift, and in the next she appears to be well put together and critical of Melanie's parenting, which is so clearly superior to her own. Also, following an admittedly heartwrenching climactic confrontation between Tracy and Melanie, Hardwicke has trouble rustling up an ending that equals what has come before. As it stands, it is a little too open-ended to fully satisfy, and lacks the catharsis expected.

All this taken into account, "Thirteen" is an uncompromising and beautifully told slice-of-life about the human condition of transitioning from a child to an adult. Tracy is sympathetic because she is so sharply written and portrayed, and the fact that we continue to care about her even as she does some very nasty things is a testament to all involved. By the end, we are placed right alongside Melanie, desperately wanting to snap some much-needed sense into her even as we long to cradle her in our arms and let her know everything is going to be all right. To watch "Thirteen" is to either be forever grateful our own experiences at thirteen weren't quite so nightmarish, or to nod in complete acknowledgment that, yes, they were just like this.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman