Thirteen: Review – The Washington Post

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, Thirteen: Press

The Washington Post
Stephen Hunter
August 29, 2003

Girls Gone Wild : ‘Thirteen’ Reveals Eighth Grade as More Than Lip Gloss and Slow Dances

“Thirteen” is less a movie than a great piece of journalism. It has all the hallmarks of serious, brilliant reporting: It pierces a culture, it pays careful attention to nuance and detail, it eschews a showy tone, it illuminates its subject. And it is very disturbing. It makes you want to hug your kids hard, and never let them out.

But as a drama, its instincts are somewhat unsure.

The story follows a pretty, innocent, smart and vivacious 13-year-old girl named Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) in what appears to be a fairly benign Southern California junior high school. It’s not the inner city: no drive-bys, no crack, no gangs. Rather, issues of fitting in, popularity and the ebb and gurgle of hormonal tides. In most respects, Tracy’s life has been designed to illustrate a statistical norm of everyteen: She’s from a broken (but not bitterly broken) family, she loves both mom ‘n’ dad, she has enough but not too much, she has a loving if sometime brusque brother, and most of all, she wants to be cool.

Well, everybody wants to be cool. I want to be cool. It’s not a teenage thing, it’s a human life thing. “Cool,” really, is an ideal, invented by media, against which we judge ourselves and against which we find ourselves wanting, always, no matter what. There are seven naturally cool people in the world, and all of them are fighter pilots with multiple victories, and they all know that if they talk about being cool, then they aren’t cool anymore. You can’t want it; you have to be it.

Tracy’s idea of cool is contained in one fabulous person, who sails the school corridors trailing a flotsam of wannabes: the svelte and charismatic Evie (Nikki Reed, who also co-wrote the script, based on life experience). Tracy yearns for Evie’s acknowledgement, to say nothing of her friendship, though as a goal that’s too enormous even to be imagined. Instead, Tracy hangs out with her droopy friends — chubbettes, repressives and the chronically pallid — and now and then casts covetous glimpses at Evie, the center of all attention, the queen and ruler of the cool clique, sought after by guys, even older guys. Then one brave day, Tracy changes her style, from non-starter to fast-girl-in-training. You can trust the movie to sweat the small stuff; I have every faith that a certain toenail polish may mean the difference between in and out in junior high school.

And mirabile dictu, Evie notices. But does Evie see a new cool girl, or her next victim in the con game of life?

In some ways, “Thirteen” takes as its model the classic black-widow scenario from film noir, about the seductive femme fatale who draws you in, steals your soul, makes you a slave, then betrays you, laughing all the way to the bank, while you’re left behind to face the music. Only it’s set in a mall.

For Evie begins, ever so slowly, not merely to bewitch Tracy but to robotize her. Maybe Evie’s current collection of slaves has begun to bore her, maybe she sees in the less sophisticated girl something absent in her own life, or maybe she’s just bad, all bad. In any event, as director Catherine Hardwicke chronicles it, Evie’s victory over Tracy is swift and complete. Soon she’s remade Tracy in her own image and involved her in the various dangerous liaisons of the eighth-grade fast life, including doing drugs, shoplifting, cutting school, cutting herself (ugh!) and doing unnecessary things with horny boys. It’s not pretty what a friend without pity can do, and the movie opens on an ugly image that sums up the twisted barb of love-hate between the girls: high on drugs, they laughingly, lovingly beat each other black and blue. The movie studies cruelty with an unblinking eye, and for some its intensity may be too disturbing.

As it turns out, mere domination isn’t enough for Evie. She goes further, into usurpation: She becomes a member of Tracy’s family, more adored than Tracy herself. Soon she’s calling Tracy’s mother “Ma” and giving her hugs. For a while, the film feels a little like a clever horror movie about a hypnotized family that replaces its normal daughter with a more idealized one.

Each young actress is powerful and superb, and the creation of teen-girl culture seems almost pitch-perfect. The flaw is the flaw of most works of muckraking when they are held to artistic standards: It’s a question of proportion. Poor Tracy is front-loaded with every conceivable woe for a child of her age, so that she ceases to be a character in a drama and becomes instead a poster child for social dysfunction. She’s a figure out of sociology rather than out of reality.

Still, Hardwicke, a former art director, brings insights to the material that many directors might not have thought of. With her artistic eye, she’s able to make the visual texture of the film work as commentary. I was struck, for example, by the way in which she subtly makes a point that the authority structure of the family is severely threatened when the mom and the daughter look exactly alike.

Mom is played by Holly Hunter in hip-huggers, with a sinuous bare midriff, flip-flops and tees. How does she dress differently than her daughter? The answer is: not a bit. She’s in love with cool as well, and the movie makes clear that the distinction in wardrobe between young and old has vanished forever. And, that being so, the platform for the mother’s authority becomes narrow indeed. How can a mom who shows her navel tell a daughter who shows her navel that having that navel pierced is just one step too far?

Toward the end, “Thirteen” grows manipulative and melodramatic. It resolves itself to a scene of battlin’ moms, where Hunter goes head-to-head with Deborah Kara Unger, who plays Evie’s dissolute mother. That’s the trouble with movies: They have to have endings, whereas a feature story, or a movie review, can just stop.

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