“The itsy-bitsy spider dropped acid at the park…”
Growing up is hard, but Thirteen suggests that, despite the chaos and angst, it will eventually get better. What’s refreshing about it is that, while it addresses the many issues that affect teens attempting to prove themselves as young adults, it never really sensationalises them. There are no overly melodramatic twists – no pregnancies, overdoses, or drug-induced rapes to really hammer home the message – and, consequently, Thirteen is powerfully realistic and, despite the rapidity with which Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) succumbs to rebellion, teenhood, and all that that entails, is wholly believable.
Co-written by then-thirteen year old Nikki Reed (who also stars as Tracy’s troubled best friend Evie) and director Catherine Hardwicke, Thirteen‘s semi-biographical nature emphasises its authenticity. The delirious hyperactivity of young teens exploring their blossoming sexuality, discovering boys, petty crime, drugs, and the seemingly limitless excitement that comes with suddenly realising you don’t have to be a child any more contrasts well against the emotional impact this new lifestyle has – this new-found freedom is not without consequence. While their actions may seem self-assured, the reality is that Tracy and Evie are still kids, first and foremost. They might play at being adults, but they are still fragile and, in the case of these two teens, both already damaged. The film is, at its heart, a cry for help – on screen both Tracy and Evie are the ones screaming out, living without fear of consequence, deliberately rebelling against their home life, trying to find their own place in the world, while off camera, Nikki Reed based the story on her own experiences after Hardwicke suggested it could be a way of working through problems.
The collaboration between Hardwicke and Reed works perfectly, and the insight provided by Hardwicke as an adult is reflected in the relationship between Tracy and her recovering alcoholic mother Mel (Helen Hunt). This is as much a film about a mother and daughter as it is about two young friends; Evie might be the catalyst, kick-starting Tracy’s new lifestyle, but one gets the distinct feeling that Tracy was looking for any kind of outlet for her inner conflict. Hunt, nominated for an Oscar for her role here, is utterly believable as Mel, a mother who means well but is out of her depth, who can’t help but make her own mistakes, and who struggles as she watches her daughter transform from a quiet, well behaved child, to an angry, explosive teen. Mel lacks the self-awareness to recognise that Tracy’s actions are more than just her developing into an adult; they are her way of expressing her desperation, misery, and anger at the world and, more specifically, her home life. In the film’s final moments, the attention refocuses on their relationship – the friendship between Tracy and Evie may have been intense, but it’s the mother-daughter bond that survives.
Hardwicke does an excellent job of bringing out natural performances from her cast – Evan Rachel Wood is perfect as Tracy. Her explosive outbursts and angst-ridden, attention-seeking ways could easily become irritating and/or laughable, but she plays her role with an unexpected restraint, never slipping into overacting despite her swear-filled ranting and outlandish behaviour. Reed too embodies her role as seemingly mature Evie; her apparently self-assured nature and overt sexuality masks a troubled young girl, whose compulsive lying and flippant attitude barely conceals her internal damage. Yet this is not all grim and miserable – there are plenty of times when the girls share in the joys of new experiences that, while not necessarily healthy, are arguably just marginally more extreme examples of the experiences most teens have on their path to adulthood. Hardwicke captures these moments beautifully, the hand-held camerawork and heady, delirious style dreamily reflecting Evie and Tracy’s happiness during their moments of pure escapism.
Hardwicke’s style is evident throughout and, while it’s not always subtle, it works well. The blue, muted colours that perfectly captured Bella and Edward’s angsty inner turmoil in Twilight are present here, with the film becoming increasingly gritty and washed out as Tracy slips even further into the murky world she’s chosen to inhabit. Less obvious is the gradual defacement of an advertisement that pops up throughout the film; seemingly promoting some kind of high-end beauty product, the image becomes distorted and ugly through graffiti and damage. Yet these stylistic choices are always secondary to the performances within the film; Hardwicke evidently shares some sort of empathy and tolerance that allows her young actors to flourish and, in this and in Twilight, the director embraces the naturally angst-ridden story and creates something that manages to be sympathetic rather than irksome.