Thirteen (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

As the kids have picked up from every cultural sign around them, sex is a route to adulthood, but it's also an ordeal, a hard test of their young mettle.


Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Sisto, Deborah Kara Unger, Kip Pardue, Brady Corbet
Distributor: Fox Home Video
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2004-01-27

"Wait. There was a song called 'Fuck You'?" Evan Rachel Wood's surprise while she watches the end credits roll on Fox's DVD of Thirteen gets her fellow commentators laughing. Co-writer/director Catherine Hardwicke explains that it's a Youth Brigade song, used for a scene when the kids are skateboarding. Along with Hardwicke and Wood, the track includes input from co-writer and co-star Nikki Reed, as well as Brady Corbet, who plays slightly older brother Mason to Wood's 13-year-old Tracy.

It's a joke that Wood is so startled by the song title, given that the film is rife with images and ideas decidedly more upsetting than this song title's defiant proclamation. Getting the joke that is, at some level, about the controversy the film stirred up, Wood and her happy fellow commentators display their own sense of balance and self-awareness. It's good to know that these kids are so all right.

But that's because, unlike too many teenagers, they are surrounded by adults who make it their business to look after them. The film makes this point repeatedly -- kids need adults to care -- but doesn't judge anyone's imperfection. It's a theme that even comes up in the DVD's extras, which include some 10 brief, deleted scenes (mostly showing more of Tracy's excesses, which Hardwicke explains were cut for pacing), and a five-minute making-of featurette. Throughout the commentary, Hardwicke and the young actors underline the points they think they're making (about drug use, about girls' sexuality), and (mostly fondly) recall the difficulties of a production limited by money and time.

Hardwicke says, "We were on a super-tight indie shooting schedule," with only 24 days for principal photography. The "brutal" lack of time was exacerbated by the fact that all the kids were "underage, so we were only allowed nine and half hours on the set." They improvised, working quickly, with handheld cameras, racing to make every minute count (they shot all school exteriors in one on one day, which they call "Black Saturday," and had, as Hardwicke puts it, "13 scenes to do in eight hours"). Or, she says, "Remember this day? Everybody had such low energy that we just had to pump the music really loud." As Hardwicke extols the method's relation to the theme -- the frantic pace emulated the speed of life at 13 -- Corbet adds, "Making the movie was like junior high."

Watching the movie can be similarly harrowing. Thirteen begins in mid-crisis. Tracy and her best friend Evie (Nikki Reed) sit on a bed and suck up a can of Dust-Off. Shot in a series of close-ups, they seek escape: "I can't feel anything," giggles Tracy. Evie says she hears 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 mutually 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 somewhat simplified (naïve Tracy meets pop-tart Evie, listens to hiphop, goes bad), it also might sound familiar, particularly if you know or have been a 13-year-old who feels alienated, angry, or self-destructive. The project arose from Hardwicke's own efforts to ease Nikki's adolescent angst (Nikki being the daughter of a friend): "I kinda wanted to maybe sorta reach out and find some way to broaden Nikki's perspective and get her thinking about kinda creative stuff instead of kinda destructive stuff. So I started taking her to like, museums, and 'Let's look at art,' and 'Let's learn how to surf or rock climb.' And that kind of led to, "Well, let's write something together.'"

The film's version of Nikki's experience has Tracy living with her single mom Melanie (Holly Hunter) and Mason in a low-rent section of Los Angeles, Tracy 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, including 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'd rather not revisit.

Tracy's mad at her mother for seeming weak and Brady for bringing back scary memories (his overdose in the kitchen). In search of some 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, and lowcut jeans -- and resolves that day to get with the cool girls (termed "the Hottie Patrol" by Hardwicke).

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 to 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 and snorting coke, tripping on acid. And, of course, experimenting with sex -- with boys and with each other, high and straight. The girls learn to use their bodies, or at least to show them off, and the camera occasionally frames them as if it's a passerby startled by their confident self-display. During one fast-cut montagey scene, the girls hang out at the park with a pack of boys, scampering in the sprinkler water, shot against as silhouettes against the setting sun (Reed observes: "We had so much fun, but I think, like, in bigger budget movies, the water's warmer.")

As the kids have picked up from every cultural sign around them, sex is a route to adulthood, but it's also an ordeal, a hard test of their young mettle. And, no surprise, 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 manifestly raucous. She lives with Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger, whom the kids agree, "rocks!"); much like the girls, Brooke 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.

Thirteen is both upsetting and moralistic. In this doubled effect, it recalls Larry Clark's Kids (1995), exposing bad behavior in handheld Super 16 imagery (shot by the resourceful Elliot Davis [Get on the Bus, 1996]), that hovers between reportage and sensationalism. Unlike Kids, 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 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, who performs his own rap), 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, though it looks like deliberate 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 kitchen floor tiles is one remarkable moment, and the commentators linger over it, noting that Hunter is "absolutely amazing." Her fury seems directed at the very domestic stability she's working hard to maintain.

So routine are her 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 frustrating, mother and daughter lurch from moment to moment, desperate to connect even when full-on confrontation seems the only route. Their conflict can't be resolved or even fully rendered in one movie, but Thirteen does well to dig into its nuances. Making the film, the adolescent actors agree, "It was a very intense experience." And Corbet, sums up, "Right now, we should just say 'Cheers' to everybody."

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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