13 Going on 30 (2004)

It was a little daunting and I was talking to the rest of the Alias cast about it and when I said the title, they said, “Jennifer, that is so you.”
— Jennifer Garner, “Making of a Teen Dream”

It’s always two plus two, never four… Even if my audience is 12-year-olds, they’re smart. They’ve seen movies like this before, and they’re just smart. Never talk down to them.
— Gary Winick, commentary track, 13 Going on 30

“Junior high is really hard, and you really, really want to be one of the popular kids.” So remembers Susan Arnold, one of the producers on 13 Going on 30, as you watch 13-year-old Jenna Rink (Christa Allen) sigh so sadly at her school photo, in which her face is twisted into a benign alienness. Still, she persists: when the Six Chicks (the popular kids here) approach her locker, Jenna invites them to her party, and smiles just a little too brightly when they say, oh, okay.

Throughout this commentary track (Arnold is joined by Donna Arkoff Roth and Gina Matthews), the producers recall their own ’80s girlhoods, from the acid-washed jeans to the desperate longing to be liked by the popular kids. They talk about the great ideas offered by their crew, terrific energy of the cast (everyone loves star Jennifer Garner, of course), flat-out fun of shooting in New York City (especially Greenwich Village!), love for Rick Springfield and Madonna, and delight in the basic concept: grown-up Jenna/Garner is “being 13 inside and then being 30, enjoying being 30, being scared of being 30, feeling like she’s growing up. All throughout the movie, she had a lot of things to remember and a lot of things to play in her character and she was brilliant at it.” Their thinking about the film sounds so copasetic that you imagine the production was joyful, certainly more joyful than most movie productions.

This sense of enchantment is confirmed by a second commentary track by director Gary Winick (the DVD’s plentiful, if not exactly scintillating, extras also include 18 deleted or extended scenes, a blooper reel, a featurette called “I Was a Teenage Geek” (cast stories about wearing braces and feeling unloved), and “Making of a Teen Dream,” a standard documentary about how the film was conceived by makers and beloved by all involved). Winick notes more than once his good fortune with this, his first big-budget feature (his breakout film was Tadpole, another consideration of growing up awkwardly), rejoicing in Garner’s excellence, noting his favorite textual references (to Notting Hill, Kubrick, From Here to Eternity), and recalling the few times he made decisions he now wishes he’d made differently.

Most of his decisions appear to be fine, however. His film is often adorable, most especially when Jennifer Garner acts like she’s 13. The story that gets her to that point is contrived, of course, but it’s hard to care about that when you’re watching her eyes widen as she looks down to “discover” her bouncy new breasts, or galumph across a room bursting with combined nervousness and delight. As Jenna, Garner embodies a joy that’s all too rare on recent movie screens, in adults or kids.

The frame for her charms goes like this: Jenna is suddenly awakened from her 13-year-old incarnation into a 30-year-old body, stunned to see her adult body and apartment full of designer furniture and expensive outfits. She also finds, much to her horror, that she has a “boyfriend,” a self-absorbed galoot of a studly New York Ranger named Alex (Samuel Ball) who’s wandering around her apartment with only a towel around his waist. “Gross!” she sputters, rushing out the door in her nightgown and a pricey jacket she grabs on her way to the elevator of her fancy high rise apartment building.

Jenna’s confounding initiation occurs just after her younger self has made a fairy-dusted wish to be grown up and popular (inspired by the catchy title of a women’s magazine article, “30, Flirty, and Thriving”). The occasion for the dusting is her 13th birthday, a present from her best friend and next-door neighbor Matt (Jack Salvatore Jr.). He wants only to make her happy, even if it means understanding that she prefers the company of the snotty girls, especially the super-selfish Tom-Tom (Alexandra Kyle), to him.

The girls arrive at the “party,” scheming to exploit Jenna’s willingness to write a class project for them, while she bobbles about like a puppy dog, eager to please at any cost. Matt (whose point of view secures your own sympathy for Jenna, even when she’s less than sensitive to his needs) can only watch in horror as the girls Jenna wants so much to please abuse her trust, tell her they’re playing a “game,” and leave her waiting for them, blindfolded in a dark closet.

Their cruelty is compounded by Jenna’s previous ultimate cuteness, again viewed through Matt’s doting and unnoticed gaze. He spots her energetic preparations for her party, including her rehearsing the steps to the video for “Thriller.” This image — Jenna emulating Michael Jackson in 1987 — is revisited a few scenes later, after she has begun to assimilate into her 30-year-old life. As her initial excitement at being a grown-up wears off, Jenna starts feeling pressured by her career and oh yes, that romance with the hockey player. (Garner’s elaborate gasping and cringing when he begins to disrobe recall Lucille Ball’s charismatic comedy.)

Attending yet another party, this time promoting her magazine, Poise, Jenna is enjoined by her boss (Andy Serkis) to liven up the proceedings: everyone is white, skinny, and bored. Jenna knows just the thing: she approaches the DJ (the only black man in the room) and asks him to play “Thriller.” Within minutes, she has all the self-conscious stiffs dancing those ingenious monster steps along with her.

This moment is extra-adorable, not to mention a triumph of hygienic, manic crossover. Tellingly, the delight of the scene (it’s hard not to smile along with Jenna’s uncontainable pleasure) has to do with its evacuation of any weirdness, sexuality, or Michaelness. Jenna’s naïve understanding that Michael was “not like other guys” is here recovered from today’s more cynical interpretations.

Even his famously precise dance is here reclaimed and rejuvenated by Garner’s sweet clumsiness, set against the earnest group choreography, a show that is at once giddy and hopeful, the kind of show put on by so many kids in 1987. It’s also the occasion for Jenna’s reunion with Matt (now played with endearing warmth by Mark Ruffalo), with whom she has lost touch. More specifically, she dissed him on that 13th birthday so badly that he never spoke to her again. Now he’s a scruffy, downtown, independent-minded photographer, who will, of course, help her redeem the monotonous slickness of Poise, as he exemplifies the moral course from which Jenna has strayed, in her aggressive pursuit of wealthy, well-dressed girlness. (The DVD’s making-of documentary includes a section on the costumes, as these delineate character, from the ’80s outfits to the current day, high-fashion sassiness for the magazine employees, and soft, pinker looks for the getting-nicer Jenna.)

You see the lessons she will learn. While it’s been described as a sort of distaff Big, 13 Going on 30 slightly shifts the terms of Penny Marshall’s film. Jenna’s primary relationship, the unfulfilled romance with Matt, is saved, unlike Tom Hanks’ impossible adult relationship with Elizabeth Perkins. And Jenna’s successful challenges to the magazine business as usual (that is, corrupt, cutthroat practices) are inspired by her childlike enthusiasm for a time that, literally speaking, didn’t occur for her (namely, college).

The movie’s concept — prepackaged nostalgia for youthful, if unreal, guilelessness — is surely seductive. Here’s a girl who has missed everything that might have brought her from 13 to 30, including the maliciousness she has committed in order to become as successful as she ever wished. This includes Alex, who attempts to seduce her one night by stripping to “Ice, Ice, Baby” (he being a hockey player and all): Winick notes here, rightly, that Ball “just commits,” such that his rigid-armed dance and Jenna’s appalled reactions are equally fun to see. Rather than knowing of, much less bearing responsibility for, her personal and professional history, she is able to paste together nonexistent memories in order to remake herself in a present that in itself doesn’t really exist (the film reconstructs it, after all, as a 13-year-old’s crazy dream). It’s the perfect fantasy of executive success: all the perks, no guilt.

She’s estranged from her parents (including her wonderfully patient mother [Kathy Baker]) and has no notion of the other-women’s-husbands she’s bedded in order to attain her brilliant career. This lack of experience allows her to remain a safe point of identification, innocent by definition. To make her position clear, 13 Going on 30 offers up a recognizable villain, in Jenna’s supposedly best friend, Lucy (as a child, her name was Tom-Tom, and she was snotty even then; as an adult, she’s played by fearless Judy Greer). The obvious representative of how nasty fast-paced careerism can be, Lucy is two-faced with all stops out. The fact that she’s only emulating her more “successful” girlfriend Jenna, leaves poor 13-year-old-in-her-head Jenna looking like she’s in some alternative dimension, trying to undo her wicked self’s malevolence.

No doubt, the film’s formulaic plot tends to the tedious (Jenna must learn lessons, Matt must feel betrayed again, their romance must undergo twists and turns). But for all that, the girly stuff is all about Garner’s big smile and gangly grace. At a slumber party with her 13-year-old girl neighbors, 30-year-old Jenna shares her delirious first kiss with Matt (which takes place on a playground, no less). As the girls ooh and ahh and press for details (“Oh look, you’ve got goose bumps!”), Jenna is wound up with possibilities: “Heartache to heartache we stand,” she quotes, “Love is a battlefield.” And with that, the girls launch into a dance matching the Pat Benatar video. Such moments are gallantly enchanting, even, on occasion, thrilling.