Thirteen follows approximately six months in the life of Tracey (played by Evan Rachel Wood) from the start of her new school term when she decides to re-invent herself in order to hang out with Evie, "the hottest girl in school". The two quickly become friends with both of them leaving their old mates behind to go after boys and experiment with all the things they know they shouldn't.
What is impressive about Thirteen is the way it turns that seemingly banal premise into such a compelling and disturbing drama. One of the key ways director Catherine Hardwicke achieves this is through her dizzying expressionist camera work. Effortlessly fusing typically MTV style visuals with more restrained, intimate tableaux the film manages to help the viewer appreciate the story from the perspective of both Tracey and of her mother Mel. But the numerous point-of-view shots, particularly during the most shocking moments of the two girls' behaviour, means that the viewer experience the world through Tracey's eyes rather than her mother's.
And there is much to be shocked at. Tracey and Evie (played by the film's 15 year-old co-writer Nikki Reed) put themselves through theft, piercings, sex, alcohol and drug abuse, which is horrendous enough when experienced by 18 year-olds, but despite their adult appearances these girls are only 13. They are old before their time, wishing their lives away for the cheap thrills of a forbidden world. When the film was first released it drew criticism for portraying these typical American girls in such an untypical fashion, and yet with rates of teenage pregnancies soaring can anyone really doubt that this film reflects the experiences of a significant number of teenagers?
However, if the film only focussed on Tracey's experiences it would lack balance, and in many ways the shockingness of it is intensified by the empathy Hardwicke creates for her (presumably) adult audience with Tracey's mother Mel (Holly Hunter). Hunter gives a truly awesome performance as a women with a big heart but terrible boundaries, and an inability to say no when she really needs to. No-one can doubt her love for Tracey except for Tracey herself who only sees a broken relationship with her detached father, an unsuitable boyfriend, the poverty of her home, and the way she allows other to take advantage of her. It's no wonder that Tracey grows up with so little self respect. Perhaps the most heart wrenching moment of the film is not the various abuses listed above but when we see Tracey cutting herself early on in the film. At this point Tracey has not yet spiralled out of control, but the scars of previous cuttings are plain to see. Yet it's only when this deep self hatred emerges in her outward behaviour that her mother, and indeed the viewer are really appalled.
Thirteen is a powerful film with an incredibly strong script (even before you take into account the inexperience of its co-writer). Whilst it doesn't take much to draw a strong performance out of Holly Hunter, Hardwicke certainly helps her achieve her best performance in years, and gets two such incredible portrayals out of her teenage stars that one is totally submerged in the film. The final scenes leave things ambiguous (how could they not?), but just as they offer a parting of the ways, one suspects that Tracey and Evie's lives will go in different directions. Tragically, Evie's mother is neither unable (or perhaps unwilling) to see through her daughter's lies, nor to face up to her own failings. Tracey, on the other hand is hugged for hours by her mother who offers love, understanding, and a resolve to change things in the light of the truth. Whilst I imagine that both families would face many struggles in the years ahead, I can't escape the suspicion that the family in which love and truth reign has the upper hand.
There are a few points I want to make about the film particularly in relation to The Nativity Story.
Firstly, on the basis of this film, the plot outlines for her other film Lords of Dogtown, and the talk about The Nativity Story Hardwicke seems to have a particular interest in hyper-realistic, coming of age dramas. Nativity will be her second film looking at a young teenage girl whose life is changed forever. I'm keen to see how these themes play out in Dogtown, I think they will give Nativity a real edge. There are some interesting comments by Hardwicke on Thirteen at CNN.
Secondly, it is interesting that Mel's boyfriend, Brady, in Thirteen is played by Jeremy Sisto, who obviously played Jesus in Jesus (1999). Whilst Brady has good in him, he gives the impression of being equally as detached and unaware as Tracey's father. In fact it's interesting that there is such an absence of strong male characters in Thirteen. Does this absence suggest that this is part of the problem. How will this play out in Nativity where Joseph, Mary's father Joachim, and God himself are all, in some sense, fathers?
Finally, as my review above suggests I am very impressed by Thirteen, and can understand Jeffrey Overstreet's excitement on hearing Hardwicke has taken the project. I hope she somehow retains much of the innovative camera work, and I can understand why she was drawn to Mike Rich's script and that it has "gotten so inside the characters".1
1 - Mark Moring, "O Little Town", Christianity Today web edition, 06/07/06