Is there anyone in the world who has not already figured out that growing into a teenager is a difficult, confused, seemingly never-ending process? The minds behind Thirteen must believe that there are. Either that, or they are directing this film at the minority of parents who need to know the truth about what kids do when no is looking. In that case, the film should at least be commended for its earnestness, if not its content.
Thirteen-year old Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) is entering the seventh grade. She finds herself behind in the popularity game, and immediately begins ditching every pre-teen element about her. In doing so, she falls under the spell of popular girl Evie (Nicki Reed) who, with her big smile, designer clothing, and hordes of followers, appears to have it all. Evie’s powerful influence leads Tracy on the fast track to experimenting with drugs and sex over the next few months. Tracy’s mom, Melanie (Holly Hunter) tries to maintain her daughter’s friendship while trying to discipline her daughter, to no avail.
Now if you have already seen a film like American Beauty or the under-rated Bully, then you have a good idea about what some teenagers do behind closed doors—cinematically, at least. Yet this material is treated as if it is a fresh idea. Thirteen is a shopping list of every teen angst cliché imaginable. Highly suggestible adolescent girl alters her appearance and turns her back on her real friends to fit in. Check. She being the product of a broken home. Check. Pretty, popular girl who hides terrible secrets behind a big smile. Check, check, check.
Yet even at only 95 minutes, Thirteen feels long. The film meanders back and forth between random characters and displaced situations, only to teach us the same lesson about change repeatedly. At one point in the film, Tracy performs oral sex on a male peer. This scene is immediately followed by one of Tracy and Evie seducing one of her brother’s older friends. This attempt to paint Tracy as an automatic nymph ends up feeling like a different version of the scene that preceded it. This view of a teenager’s world is warped and equally clichéd, featuring mostly frenetic cuts and blurred focus to insinuate the rapid and unfocused lifestyle that these kids lead.
Tracy, being the center of the action, affects every character around her, even though she is consciously making one wrong decision after another. The relationship becomes fascinating because the viewer is left to wonder if Evie truly loves Tracy or loves Tracy for letting her into her life. The same goes for Tracy, who may only love what Evie has done for her status. These relationships work because of the strong performances by the three female leads. Hunter, Wood, and Reed are equally magnetic in portraying the down-to-earth mother and the two hell-raising Lolitas.
With the mother-daughter relationship interwoven with the relationship between the two young girls, one could see how few will be able to connect to the story emotionally. The only male characters are Tracy’s largely absent father, Melanie’s ex-cokehead boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto), and the slew of eager young men that the two girls encounter. This movie does not hate men, but it does not open up to them or give them the opportunity to connect on the same level. They are simply afterthoughts. It is a “chick flick” in the most disturbing sense of the word. Written and directed by women, starring women, for women…and their daughters.
And there is no finality. The final scenes are ambiguous and the last shot had me wondering if Tracy was going to change at all. This might be the type of ending that is left open for the sake of discussion, but in a film that so furiously demands you take the trip with the lead character, some kind of closure should have been in order.
Thirteen is not a bad film. It is sincere and acted to the maximum potential of the characters, but still a TV “after-school” special writ large. Maybe living in New York has made me more visibly aware that teenagers, being confused, often choose the path of destruction. Had I lived in Middle America, where sometimes these activities are masked, this all would have been new to me.