What-ev-er! I Do What I Want!: Thirteen

I remember watching Degrassi Junior High when I was thirteen years old, and feeling a little dumbfounded. It didn’t at all mirror what my life was like at the time; for instance, I did not have a female classmate even remotely like the scary pregnant one with the punk attitude and impossibly teased hair. Maybe it would’ve seemed less foreign if I had gone somewhere grittier than Catholic School , but I doubt it. Everything on that show seemed a little too perfect, calculated, scripted. Since then, I can name only a handful of films (Our Song, Welcome To Dollhouse) and TV shows (My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks) that come close to really capturing the schizoid excitement, confusion, and pain of early adolescence.

Thirteen gets some of it right, but it doesn’t help that its protagonist is worlds away from most girls her age. When we first meet her, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) seems like the prototypical intelligent nice girl who longs to be popular like Evie (Nikki Reed), her buxom, bad-girl classmate. But, rather rapidly, the former shrewdly (but adoringly, clumsily) pursues the latter’s attention. After proving to Evie just how “bad” she can be (by shoplifting), the two become fast friends, with the good girl picking up all the bad girl’s habits until they spiral out of control in a miasma of body piercings, neglected schoolwork and recreational-verging-on-heavy drug use. Not helping matters is Tracy’s fractured home life. Mom (Holly Hunter, even more riveting a matriarch than Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon) makes the bills by giving haircuts out of their home, but also dates a former addict/halfway house resident whom Tracy loathes (played by an unusually restrained Jeremy Sisto.) Dad simply doesn’t make time for his daughter (or her slightly older brother), what with his job and second wife and all.

Oh, and if all of that didn’t put Thirteen over the top, Tracy also has a jones for self-mutilation. Well, you could blame the script’s excesses into obvious melodrama and Afterschool Special in Hell flavor from the fact that it was co-written by Reed, who currently is a year or two older than Evie. Granted, it’s impressive for a 13 year-old, even though it’s hard to say how much the other co-writer, first time director and long time production designer Catherine Hardwick contributed. Nonetheless, much of Thirteen seems merely implausible—Tracy’s transformation is too much, too fast, to the point where she threatens to become a screechy caricature beyond anyone’s comprehension or interest. By the time the film returns to its shocker of an opening scene—a numbed up (from doing whippets) Tracy and Evie sitting in the former’s bedroom, hitting each other until they bleed and laughing hysterically, it's devolving into a routine matter of “Can Tracy and Evie’s behavior get any worse? You bet!”

Fortunately, three things save the film from drowning in such exploitative mess. The first is Hunter, who brings nearly every one of her best qualities as an actress to the complicated role of a good, but flawed mother, one of the most complete you’ll ever see on the screen. The second is Wood. Even though she’s not as genuine and real as say, Agnes Bruckner in Blue Car, she manages to keep her character grounded and worthy of our attention, even as the script renders her increasingly more outlandish. The third is an unexpectedly and successfully cathartic ending. If the bulk of the film is equally stylish and gritty with its soundtrack and hand held camera, the final ten minutes (save the last scene) is more like A Woman Under The Influence—messy, sobering, and at turns, really surprising. It elevates Thirteen into bolder, more provocative territory; it documents a crash that we’ve all been expecting, but it hits much harder than we ever imagine it would.