Right up front: This is a tough film to watch. The multiplicity of ways 13-year-old Tracy inflicts pain on herself will make you cringe.
First-time director/screenwriter Catherine Hardwicke won the directing award at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival for Thirteen, the explosive story of Tracy, a seventh-grade girl whose life goes into a tailspin when she befriends Evie, a hot, fast whirlwind of fashion, piercings, drugs, sex and lies.
Evie, played by 15-year-old co-screenwriter Nikki Reed, is actually a composite character, the amalgamation of a group of three girls Reed met when she was 13, who changed her life, she claims, over a weekend. Hardwicke was Reed's father's girlfriend at the time, and thought the dramatic story of Nikki's adolescent crisis would be good material for a first film.
She was right. This is compelling stuff that no parent in her right mind can turn away from. The insecurities of adolescence, combined with some of the more brutal social norms of the times, can quickly turn into a pressure cooker situation. In this case, Tracy's home life provides the perfect incubator for trouble. Her divorced mother Mel, played by Holly Hunter, is struggling financially, trying to make a living doing hair in her living room. She's a recovering alcoholic with an unreliable boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto) who's in and out of drug rehab. Tracy's father is basically absent from her life, remarried with a new baby, neglectful and clueless.
Tracy dumps her old, reliable friends when she pursues and wins the friendship of Evie. Immediately, her life is turned upside down by the alluring dare of being cool. One of the first scenes of the girls together is a bit unbelievable -- on her first shopping trip with Evie, Tracy brazenly lifts the wallet out of a woman's purse. Several scenes feel forced by this kind of adolescent drive for drama, but they do not detract from the film's ultimate power.
Grounding it all is Holly Hunter in a performance so pure and deep it hurts to watch. She's a mom in crisis, but not in chaos. She loves her kids, feeds them, takes in strays, keeps the house neat, and exudes her desperate need to nurture and be loved in return. Rarely does an actress grab an audience with the intensity of her watching, but here, we are breathless witnesses to her horror as she helplessly looks on while her daughter slips away.
Evan Rachel Wood is superb as well. There is an intelligence at work in her depiction of Tracy that knows the direction she's headed could lead to disaster. Most women can remember a time when they were deep into a situation they wanted to escape but didn't know how. Wood reminds us how that feels while shocking us with her anger and pain.
Hardwicke's experience as a production designer shows in Thirteen. On a $1.5 million budget, she has made on of the more stylish films of the year. The sets are interesting, especially the house where Tracy, her mom and brother live with its maze of rooms and windows everyone can see through. The film is shot with a handheld camera that becomes a distraction only occasionally, and the bleached out color gives it that harsh Southern California feel. The colors fade as the characters' lives descend toward the dramatic climax.
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