DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
THIRTEEN (director/writer: Catherine Hardwicke; screenwriter: from a story by Nikki Reed; cinematographer: Elliot Davis; editor: Nancy Richardson; music: Mark Mothersbaugh; cast: Evan Rachel Wood (Tracy), Nikki Reed (Evie Zamora), Holly Hunter (Melanie), Jeremy Sisto (Brady), Kip Pardue (Luke), Brady Corbet (Mason), Deborah Kara Unger (Brooke), Ulysses Estrada (Rafa), D. W. Moffett (Travis); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte/Michael London; Fox Searchlight; 2003-United States/United Kingdom)

 
"Being realistic and avoiding mainstream clichés in a teen film is certainly commendable, but I'm not ready to declare this work as the eye-opener it perceives it may be."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This well-intentioned and gritty indie film about troublesome teenage girls appears to be more exploitative than dramatic, even though I don't question its sincerity. But I do question its passive nonjudgmental stance, as it seems to condone the film's teenage abusive behavior and criminality as being the normal way of growing up. It's based on the semi-autobiography written by the 13-year-old Nikki Reed, who played the part in the film of Evie when she was a grown-up looking 14. Co-screenwriter Catherine Hardwicke (she used to date Reed's divorced dad) makes her debut as a director but, unfortunately, does not take this film beyond all its titillating scenes of the teens acting out their rebellion against society. The parents merely hold up their hands in disbelief that their children might be aliens from another planet and never know how to say no to them. That such teenager behavioral problems exist have already been well-reported on TV and in the tabloids. But Hardwicke's film offers no greater understanding of the twisted teens, or does it go further with the explosive gut-wrenching performances achieved by the ensemble cast than use it as shock. Being realistic and avoiding mainstream clichés in a teen film is certainly commendable, but I'm not ready to declare this work as the eye-opener it perceives it may be. 

I think the film would have been better off being less true to the original story and made more dramatically relevant with needed artistic embellishments. It was filmed as merely a bunch of skits in a plotless story and all the skits had the same one-note emotional ring of trying to shock a middle-aged audience. All its reality was based on unrealistic situations, which lost me in all its shrillness and failure to go anywhere with the story but down a dead-end. It needed drama grounded in social reality and not so many shock scenes, because after a while I became numb to all the shocks and felt nothing for the loose girls or their befuddled parents. There was too much that was mindless on both parts and though it was troubling to see, there's not much society can do if a family can't get its act together. America's money is now going for tax cuts for the rich and to rebuild what Bush broke in Iraq. It is not going to schools or social service agencies, and the religious or other traditional service institutions cannot be relied on to help. The breakdown of the family has never been so great as it is now, and all this film does is reconfirm that. I guess I wanted more from this film and didn't get it, and even though this is not a stinker it still didn't do as much as it could to break new ground. Larry Clark's Kids (95) broke the same ground in what seems like a generation ago. What I saw in Thirteen was how a couple of disturbed and nasty 13-year-old girls look at the world through peer pressure and how it is not enough for a mother to be friends with her daughter and dress like her, she has to be a parent. 

There's hardly anything new to report about teenage girls going bad that hasn't been worked over before in this long tested formulaic Hollywood genre. There's sex, drugs, hip-hop, distrust of parents, lying, stealing, and the new rage in body piercings. The only slightly different rage, is these rebellious punk-styled white girls going down with blacks. Thirteen has it all and its main claim is it shows it more realistically, intensely and graphically than other such films. 

Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) is the film's blonde bad-girl heroine once a good student on the right track to success as a Los Angeles seventh-grader, but is concerned that she's not popular with her peers and doesn't dress hip enough to fit in with the in-crowd. She lives with her regular-guy slightly older brother Mason (Corbet) and her besieged divorced mom, Mel (Holly Hunter). Mom is a recovering substance abuser and is a hairdresser working out of her cramped house, who has a generous nature and is working hard to keep the family afloat. Mel's boyfriend is an ex-addict named Brady (Jeremy Sisto), whom she met at a halfway house. The laid-back guy is openly resented by Tracy, who in one scene spitefully calls him a coke-head. Brady does not have the will to act as a surrogate father to discipline the wayward girl, nor does the ill-equipped for her mother-role mom. Mel is still reeling from her life failures and is trying to put a happy face on everything, and endlessly lets her daughter get away with abusively yelling at her. Her ex-husband does not want to be bothered with his children and she is left alone to deal with her problem daughter, but can't find the right way to handle her even though she tries hard to give her both love and support.

The film opens with a shock scene, as Tracy and her friend Evie inhale nitrous oxide and start slapping each other in the face hard while joyously giggling even though Tracy starts to bleed. This scenario sets the stage for this exploitative film. It then goes into a flashback from four months earlier when Tracy was a well-behaved A student, but who dreams of being a cool Valley Girl.

At school, Tracy enviously eyeballs the popular Evie and her well-dressed group, who contemptuously ignore her. Not discouraged that Evie gave her a wrong number for her cell phone, Tracy tracks her down on Melrose Avenue. It takes a shoplifting adventure for Tracy to prove that she's up to speed with the in-crowd and for her to be accepted. Tracy finds renewed excitement by rebelling and even though this is not her trip, she eagerly goes on it because of the thrills. It happens so suddenly that it hardly seems possible, as the director gives us no time to see how the change could have happened. Instead we immediately see Tracy get a tongue-ring and a navel piercing, wear hoochie tops, do drugs, have sex with Evie's black hip-hop pals, do lap dances, unsuccessfully try to have a threesome with her twentysomething hunky neighbor (Pardue) even though she's not interested and is doing it only for Evie's benefit, slash her wrists in a number of fits of self-hatred, go into a complete tailspin in school, and finally lose complete control of herself. The manipulative Evie, who has the charm of a cult leader sucking another into doing what they never imagined, pulls all the strings to get Tracy to do whatever she wants her to.

Evie even talks Mel into letting her stay in her home, as she lies that her guardian's boyfriend abuses her. Evie lives with her cousin Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), who is a haggard and narcissistic model with little attention span for her charge. 

Hardwicke uses a handheld camera, which gives it a documentary look but doesn't add any weight to the scenario of what is every parent's horror at what could go wrong with their daughter. The guerrilla filming technique might please the MTV crowd with all the zoom shots and quick editing fades, but its dizzying cinematography in imitation of the downfall of Tracy left me reeling without delight. I also must add that much is made of the pop-culture world being influenced by beauty as a marketing tool to influence females to buy products that will make them appealing to boys. The film seems to frown on that but at the same time dwells on beauty to make the film more appealing. Now you can't have it both ways, as that message sent seems about as disingenuous as the other moralizing messages sent. 

Thirteen won the best directing award at Sundance, which I can't agree with. Though I admire small films that are serious about their subject matters and wish to encourage such films to be made, nevertheless I was more disappointed than pleased with the results. Everything seemed so confused from the way it was photographed to the phony way it tried to shift the blame on society instead of on these dullards cluelessly raising kids, as in the end even its attempts to convince us that this was the real deal seemed overblown. 

REVIEWED ON 9/25/2003     GRADE: C

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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