Thirteen (2003)

“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.”