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Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Let this be a lesson to you
There are a lot of teen flicks out there; hell, some of them even star teenagers. But virtually all of them were penned by people for whom their teens are only a distant memory. Between hazy nostalgia and deliberate forgetfulness (of the "I didn't inhale" variety), it is rare indeed to see a film on teenagers that actually rocks with the turmoil, exuberance and giddy irresponsibility of those years.
That's where "Thirteen" comes in. Penned by a real, live 13-year-old -- Nikki Reed, with help from her friend, director Catherine Hardwicke -- "Thirteen" offers a unique voice in cinema -- the voice of jailbait. Everyone knows that sexuality is being sold to American youth at an ever younger age (stories abound of the Junior Miss sections of clothing stores selling underwear emblazoned with cartoon cats and dogs accompanied by slogans like "Wanna Bone?"), but "Thirteen" shows us what life is like in the target market.
Teen experimentation with sex and drugs is common enough; still, when it's seen affecting seventh-graders, it's hard not to be shocked. "Thirteen" opens with two girls sitting on a bed in what could be any young girl's room -- walls lined with stuffed animals and magazine cutouts of girl models and boy beefcake. The duo laugh hysterically as they trade hits of nitrous oxide. "I hear this 'waa-waa-waa' inside my head," says one. "That's your brain cells popping," says the other. "I can't feel anything," says the first. "Hit me." Wham, and she falls off the bed, blood running down her face.
In a flashback to a few months earlier, we see one of the girls, Tracy (played by then 15-year-old Evan Rachel Wood), on her first day at junior high school. With her hair in pigtails and her flowery, embroidered jeans, she looks like a girl who still values cute over cool, a fact the older girls quickly and cruelly seize upon. ("Who let her out of the Cabbage Patch?")
Tracy, however, is quick to understand the laws of school survival, and decides to make friends with classmate Evie (Reed), universally acknowledged as the "hottest" girl at their school. Like Tracy, Evie is just 13, but she looks like she's graduated from the Britney School of Nymphomanic Makeover, with her low-rider jeans, visible thong, heavy lipstick and even heavier attitude.
Though she's at first rejected by Evie and her "cool" friends, Tracy manages to join their crew when she steals a purse to finance a shopping spree. Soon the two are thick as thieves, with Tracy breathlessly trying to catch up with Evie's appetite for boyfriends, body piercings and chemical highs. This is not without certain touches of humor: When Tracy's freaking out about what will happen when her mom finds out she's pierced her tongue, Evie casually reassures her, saying, "Just don't open your mouth wide when you talk. She won't notice."
But Tracy's mom, Melanie, does find out, and for her it's, like, sooo not cool. Played by Holly Hunter (in one of her best performances in years), single-mom Melanie is unsure how to deal with her daughter, even though she's sure she's running off the rails. Melanie means well, but it's hard for her to get morally tough with Tracy when her own boyfriend is a barely on-the-wagon crackhead.
Evie, meanwhile, pretty much moves in with Tracy; Reed plays her with a sly cunning, expertly manipulating everyone around her. When she gives Melanie a sob story about her abusive parents, it's impossible to tell if any of it is true.
What really sets "Thirteen" apart from other "troubled teen" pics like those of Larry Clark ("Kids," "Ken Park," et al.) is the inclusion of the parent's perspective. While we get to share Tracy's thrills at the discovery of forbidden pleasures and her frustration over her broken home (which includes secret self-mutilation), we also empathize with Melanie's despair at losing her daughter's love and trust. Dressed like a rock chick, and imagining herself to be younger than her age and responsibility allow, Melanie likes to think she can be Tracy's friend, like an older sister. Only gradually does she realize that something else may be required.
The frenetic rhythms of Tracy and Evie are well-served by the intimate, up-close, hand-held camerawork of Elliot Davis (who also shot Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight"). One particularly evocative moment comes when a group of kids are lying on a park lawn at night tripping on acid, and the sprinkler system comes on. The kids run around in ecstatic glee, silhouetted images in a grainy halo of water droplets.
Ultimately, "Thirteen" is a cautionary tale suggesting wisdom can only come through experience. It offers no easy solutions, only a sharp illustration of both sides of the parent-teen divide.