Thirteen (2003)

2003-08-20 (Limited release)

Thirteen begins in mid-crisis. Two girls sit on a bed and suck up a can of Dust-Off. Shot in a series of close-ups, they lapse into a sort of delirium. “I can’t feel anything,” giggles the blond one, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood). The dark one, temptress Evie (Nikki Reed), claims to hear a sound in her head: “That’s your brain cells popping!” squeals Tracy, just before they start hitting each other, just to feel something. They’re both surprised when they knock each other off the bed, raising welts and drawing blood. They laugh again.

Cutting back from this girl-bonding commotion to four months earlier, Thirteen traces how Tracy and Evie came to this unpretty place. While the course is simplified for popular consumption, the story is compelling, even urgent, particularly if you know any 13-year-olds who are feeling alienated, angry, or self-destructive. Pale and willowy, Tracy starts out as an apparent “good girl.” Living with her single mom Melanie (Holly Hunter) and slightly older brother Mason (Brady Corbet) in a low-rent section of Los Angeles, she does her homework, doesn’t make waves, and looks after her mom, a recovering addict and at-home hairdresser who tends to lose track of her hair gel during appointments.

Beneath her seeming self-possession, however, Tracy’s in trouble. She resents dad’s absence and mom’s chaos, not to mention Mel’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, Brady (Jeremy Sisto), also a recovering addict; their relationship is plainly compassionate and even fun, but they just as plainly have a history they’re trying not to revisit. Tracy’s angry at both — her mother for seeming weak and Brady for giving her scary memories (him doing drugs in the kitchen), to which she flashes back on cue. In search of some sense of order, Tracy has been cutting herself, keeping a scissors and a bloody rag hidden in the bathroom for late-night self-damage sessions. Heading back to school, new to seventh grade, Tracy’s hardly noticed. But, like everyone else, she takes definite notice of classmate Evie — in perfect makeup, tight tops, lowcut jeans, and bellybutton ring — and resolves that day to get with the cool girls.

Initially scornful of this corny girl in cutesy blue socks (“Who let her out of the cabbage patch?”), Evie relents when Tracy steals a wallet full of cash and offers it up as a kind of dowry. From here, Tracy reels into a torrent of first times — getting her tongue and navel pierced, shoplifting on Melrose, drinking, tripping on acid. And, of course, experimenting with sex — with boys and with each other, high and straight. As they’ve picked up from every cultural sign around them, sex is a route to adulthood, but it’s also an ordeal, a test of their very young mettle.

The girls’ almost instantly codependent friendship leads to inevitable tension and competition between them, especially when Evie seeks Mel’s attention, telling stories about abuses at home — these shift, depending on what Evie thinks to say each time: her aunt’s boyfriend hit her, her father bruised her. While it’s never quite clear how Evie has been abused or by whom, her situation is plainly raucous; she lives with Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), who, much like the girls, pursues mass-marketed happiness, imagining that wearing girly outfits, sleeping with younger men, or getting plastic surgery will make her happy. The film suggests that she’s not, but only from a distance, as the girls perceive her, running down the hallway on the way to work, or through a window as she huddles on her couch, stitched and black-and-blue from her ear job.

Co-written by Reed and director Catherine Hardwicke, and inspired by Reed’s experiences (as she’s been telling the many interviewers who regularly look pleased to see that she’s not only survived, but also graduated to a poised movie stardom at age 15), Thirteen is both harrowing and moralistic. In this doubled effect, it recalls Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), exposing bad behavior in handheld Super 16 imagery (here the camera is by the endlessly resourceful Elliot Davis [Get on the Bus, 1996]), that hovers between reportage and sensationalism. Unlike Kids — and this is a crucial difference — Thirteen offers more than glimpses of adults. Though Mel tends to appear from the girls’ point of view, framed by windows and doorways, not quite understanding what they’re going through, she manifestly cares about them, means to do well, and won’t give up on them (“Baby,” she pleads, “We have to have a real talk”). Even Brady is a warm, generous guy, only walking off (“This place is fucking with my head”) when Tracy knows — as she does with everyone — just what buttons to push.

Still, Thirteen comes with a Kids-like rating, that doesn’t allow 13-year-olds to see it; Hardwicke advocates that kids see it with adults with whom they can discuss it together. Such discussion might be especially helpful when it comes to the movie’s presentation of Tracy and Evie’s sexual experimentations, which raise the specter of race-mixing anxieties, as they pursue black and Hispanic boys, who impress girls by rapping and beatboxing. Evie slips out the window to “party” with some kid in the park, leaving Tracy to wonder what she’s missing. When Tracy does attract the attention of the beautiful and much desired Javi (Charles Duckworth), the girls work their simultaneous makeout and blowjob sessions in mirror fashion, Tracy copying Evie’s actions, step by step, from tongue-kissing and straddling to stripping off her top and unzipping Javi’s jeans.

That Evie later pursues Javi herself, for an evening’s distraction, only underlines her own insecurity that looks like malice to Tracy. That the girls specifically and aggressively seek out sex and drug activities with young black men and Latinos speaks to the boys’ emblematic coolness, but their desire comes with baggage — cultural, historical, political — that Tracy and Evie can’t begin to fathom. The movie might be clearer about how this works, or provide a broader context that doesn’t depend on Evie serving as a plot device and emblem of dire descent, instigation and model for Tracy’s bad behaviors.

While Thirteen shifts awkwardly from overstatement to ambiguity with regard to Evie and Tracy, it renders Tracy and Mel’s relationship with affecting detail. In part, this has to do with Wood and Hunter, who are frequently stunning (Mel’s assault on her own kitchen floor tiles is one remarkable moment), but it’s also a function of the attention paid to both characters’ ongoing efforts to deal with more or less familiar traumas. So daily are these struggles that even the house illustrates their simultaneous lack of boundaries and inability to communicate: Tracy’s room has windows looking out on the living room, where she watches Mel make out with Brady. Tracy’s discomfort is also visible, and she has no recourse. It’s as if Mel is doing this to her, on purpose. When you’re 13, increased depth of vision means more layers of you.

Confused, loving, and mutually frustrating, mother and daughter lurch from moment to moment, desperate to connect even when full-on confrontation seems the only route. It’s the sort of crisis that can’t be resolved or even fully rendered in one movie, but Thirteen does well to dig into its nuances.