It's happening so fast.
You've probably heard about Thirteen by now. This film has people talking—mostly about how uncomfortable it makes them. It isn't graphic, but it still has more raw emotional power than its contemporaries. It is one of the rare films that does not shy away from the anger and lability of youth.
One thing is clear: hype is threatening to erode the actual experience of watching Thirteen, which is a rather modest and focused little film. Critics have lauded the writing, acting, and direction, and in so doing have disproportionately elevated expectations. People seem to be forming ideas of what Thirteen is about, what it is trying to be about, or what it is supposed to be about. Therefore, I will endeavor in this review to debunk misconceptions, so that you can view the film at its own level.
Facts of the Case
Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood, The Missing, Practical Magic) is a fresh-faced, studious young girl in a somewhat broken home. Daddy is absentee. Mel, her mother (Holly Hunter, The Piano, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) can barely hold it together between overcoming alcoholism, scraping out a meager living, and dealing with friends who take advantage of her. Tracy's brother Mason (Brady Corbet, Thunderbirds) is your typical pothead surfer. Mel's boyfriend Brady (Jeremy Sisto, Clueless, Suicide Kings) drops in from his latest stint at a halfway house. Despite the chaos, Tracy has some friends and is successful in school.
Seventh grade introduces Tracy to the idea that she isn't very cool. The source of her insecurity is Evie (Nikki Reed), a manipulative queen bee. Tracy faces Evie head-on, determined to be recognized. This leads to a fast and furious friendship that puts Tracy into a downward spiral. Her family struggles to keep up with the changing Tracy and keep her from harm's way.
Let the debunking begin!
Misconception #1: The actresses who play the 13-year-olds aren't very convincing, they look and act much older.
Hello, that's the whole point? Never mind…let's just stick with the facts. Wood and Reed were both fourteen at the time this movie was filmed. In terms of Hollywood verisimilitude, that's pinpoint accuracy. The real story here is the two young women's sublime acting. Evan Rachel Wood, in particular, gives a sweet to scathing (but always watchable) performance. Not since Kirsten Dunst has a young actress displayed such perception and effortless nuance. Look at how she shuns her mother, then turns around to snicker with Evie. You can feel a frustrated, malignant energy radiating from her. Nikki Reed is convincing in a different way, displaying a manipulative bent that is hard to decipher. Remember that both actresses are portraying very difficult teenagers. You probably won't enjoy watching them—if you possess empathy.
Misconception #2: Thirteen wants to shock us, but it just isn't that shocking.
Once again, many people are missing the point. Thirteen isn't trying to shock us on an explicit level; in fact, director Catherine Hardwicke and co-writer Reed pass up obvious opportunities to be more obscene, explicit, offensive, or whatever else invites the term "shocking." The film labors instead to explore nuances of a 13-year-old's relationships, particularly with her mother and friend. The horror in this film is much subtler. It is not so much what happens as what could happen. How do you balance giving a kid room to explore without squelching her?
If you are expecting to be shocked by shots of needles going into skin, bodies going into each other, or that sort of thing, forget it. Thirteen isn't Kids, it's Kids Lite. Instead, consider Mel's dilemma: her heretofore-easygoing child has erupted into a hissing, spitting monster. Or think about Tracy, not wanting to steal or drink, but being goaded into it.
Misconception #3: Mel doesn't have a clue what is going on right under her nose.
Au contraire, my friend. Mel has been around. She probably even harbors secret pride that her goody-two-shoes daughter is flexing her fledgling wings of rebellion. What Holly Hunter's Oscar-nominated performance makes clear is that Mel is pretty perceptive. She knows that Tracy is drinking and skipping school. She knows that Evie is a liar. Mel catches on quick. Where she breaks down is in deciding what to do about it. Mel is paralyzed, but thinks she has time to sort out the best approach. In reality, she doesn't have time.
Misconception #4: Thirteen tries to stun us through depictions of pretty white girls sleeping around with troublemaking black guys. Come on, such shallow manipulation of our racial prejudices only makes the movie look racist.
Look who just stepped into the morass of racial misappropriation. In my high school, certain white girls tried to make immature but nonetheless high-profile statements by going after black guys. This phenomenon is completely separate from genuine interracial relationships; these girls weren't after relationships, they were after seeing people's reaction to them being with young men of color. So, in that sense, the film is somewhat racist, but only because teenage girls have an immature conceptualization of racial issues. I don't think anyone involved in the creation of this film was hoping your hackles would go up at the sight of an interracial kiss. This film is about the girls.
Misconception #5: Isn't Thirteen being overly alarmist? Tracy and Evie are not typical of teenagers. Why exaggerate the plights of our youth?
Who said they were typical? Where does Thirteen ever point the camera back at you and say, "Watch your kids like hawks, because they are out drinking and having sex—with black guys!" Thirteen is only one story. It is an almost-worst-case-scenario that skirts the brink of total collapse while remaining redeemable. The film is peopled with "typical" teenagers, and they look askance at Tracy. Her brother is more typical of the kid you hope your kid doesn't become, and even he is deeply concerned about Tracy. Can the events in this film easily happen, even to your child? Yes. Will they? Highly unlikely. But it does make for interesting intellectual consideration, which is what good films inspire.
I've been trying to suggest that Thirteen isn't as manipulative as many people claim. Catherine Hardwicke was a successful Production Designer with a Second Unit Director credit for SubUrbia. Her boyfriend's daughter was going through a rough patch, and Catherine intervened. How much did Nikki contribute to the screenplay? How rough was Nikki's rough patch, really? Was Nikki's Evie as cruelly manipulative as Thirteen's Evie? Who really knows, and is it our business? Catherine Hardwicke used Nikki's story as a jumping-off point. The result is an aggressive cautionary tale that makes us uncomfortable—and should—but it doesn't claim for itself everything people attribute to it. The filmmakers simply made a movie that tells a good story. Isn't that what independent filmmaking is all about, taking risks for a story you want told?
Thirteen has its fair share of missteps, but Hardwicke's direction is impressive (especially for a first time director). She coaxes nuance from the actors, the locales, the sets, and the cinematography. I have no idea how Nikki and Evan would fare in other roles under different circumstances, but I was bowled over by the duo in this film. Their characters seem to live and breathe within the screen, reacting to each other and provoking each other. That suggests good directing.
Hardwicke's decision to shoot with a handheld camera has been a source of contention. Emulations of cinema veritè style, such as The Blair Witch Project, have cast suspicion on handheld camerawork. The approach implies shallow, in-your-face style over substance. In addition, the jumpy focus tends to make some viewers motion-sick. But I ask you, what style would more perfectly complement a raw and aggressive look at adolescence? Many scenes in this film work solely because of the cinematography—for example, the "fashion shootout" between Tracy and Evie. It alludes to a documentary aspect while evoking MTV glee. The camerawork helps power an aggressive tone that's integral to the film's attitude. The DVD transfer shows off the cinematography clearly. There are few digital artifacts or other flaws. The immediacy of the film is faithfully rendered.
DVD is definitely the way to watch this movie, for reasons good and bad. A smaller screen might help you avoid motion sickness, if you're predisposed to it. Another reason to be thankful for DVD is the subtitles. Nowhere is the low budget more evident than in the sound. On numerous occasions, I simply could not decipher what the actors were saying. They were whispering off to the side in dramatic fashion, but my curiosity demanded to know what was being said. I can't imagine how frustrating it would be to watch this film in a theater, without the ability to rewind and switch on the subtitles. Of course, it may only serve to confuse you further; at one point, Mel was rambling about some dude who would soothe you with his raspy voice (or something). What? The 5.1 track is energetic when the music kicks in, but otherwise subdued.
Of course, the other reason we love DVD is for the extras. No reason to complain in that department. The making-of featurette is remarkably authentic to the feel of the movie—congratulatory without being sappy. Though non-anamorphic, the deleted scenes are of high quality and bring further understanding of the characters. It is great to hear the director's reasoning behind some of the cuts, although Hardwicke (like most directors) usually cites run time as the reason for a cut. The deleted scenes speak to the power of the film: I was apprehensive about watching some of the last ones because I didn't want to revisit the discomfort left by the film.
If Thirteen leaves you feeling despondent, I suggest you jump right to the commentary track. You will immediately feel better. The assembled commentators are downright jovial. You are relieved to hear that Wood and Reed are actually young actresses, and that Evan isn't laying face down in a gutter somewhere. The cast members are interested in reliving inside jokes from the production, which is their way of bringing the audience into their experience. Hardwicke does most of the focused commentary, though Evan offers some worthwhile insights. Overall, the track lacks a true deconstruction of the film, but it does have energy and few lapses into silence. As an emotional counterpoint to the movie, it works well.
I anticipate most people will find themselves engrossed in this superbly acted film. Don't expect it to be what it is not; after all, the budget was tiny and the script was written in six days. This film is an aggressive pocket of filmmaking, brimming with talent and energy. There is a lot going on here to keep your mind and emotions occupied. Thirteen may just succeed in pissing you off, but isn't that what being thirteen is all about?
The actors are fully acquitted. For aiding and abetting minors in the creation of a powerful film, Catherine Hardwicke is free to go. Just don't scare us like that ever again, do you hear me?
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director/Co-Writer Catherine Hardwicke, Co-Writer/Actor Nikki Reed, and Actors Evan Rachel Wood and Brady Corbet
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