A raw psychodrama about a girl who leapfrogs from pre-adolescent innocence to reckless rebel in a few easy lessons taught by the school bad chick, “Thirteen” is a deliberately unvarnished shock piece designed to give pause to anyone with a daughter approaching teenhood. Catherine Hardwicke’s helming debut, which won the jury’s directing prize at Sundance, can fairly be compared to the work of Larry Clark, such as “Kids” — although not as self-consciously provocative or sexually explicit, — its overriding aim is to tell the startling “truth” about what really goes on in the lives of young teens. Undeniably on the wavelength of a certain type of kid, and accomplished in relating the story it wants to tell, pic still walks a narrow, deterministic path and has the air of a therapy project as much as of a multi-faceted psychological drama. Edgy material and a measure of critical acclaim will give this Fox Searchlight pickup a certain notoriety that will help launch it on the specialized circuit, where moderate long-term returns loom.
Most interesting and promotable fact about the picture is that it is more or less the story of its co-screenwriter and co-star Nikki Reed, who’s now 14. Director Hardwicke, previously the production designer on some 20 films, including “Three Kings,” “Vanilla Sky” and “Tombstone,” had known Reed’s family for years and dated her father, and as the girl passed through a difficult period, offered to help her by putting her experiences down on paper, a project that became the script. In the film, Reed plays the fast girl who leads the gullible one astray.
After an in-your-face teaser featuring the two girls playing a taunting game of “Hit me!,” with predictably injurious results, focus flips back four months, when Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) is still an innocent L.A. pre-teen. A good seventh grade student, she seems relatively well-adjusted, at least under the circumstances of coming from a broken home and living with a mother, Melanie (Holly Hunter), who barely makes ends meet as a hairdresser. Dad is out of the picture, and Melanie’s deadbeat boyfriend Brady (Jeremy Sisto) seems more nuisance than help.
At the center of the edgiest girl clique at school is Evie (Reed), who, as the boys readily notice, is very well developed and “advanced” for her age. To Tracy’s astonishment, Evie asks her to go shopping one afternoon, which turns out to mean doing some shoplifting and stealing a purse from an old lady.
Flattered by her acceptance into the highest realm of coolness, Tracy tosses out all her girly childhood knickknacks and nerdy clothes, replacing them almost overnight with piercings and slutty tough-girl accoutrements. Of course, she also has to change her personal behavior to bring herself up to speed with Evie, so she starts getting high with the guys at the park and is induced to practice kissing with Evie in preparation for the inevitable loss of her virginity, which in Evie’s circle assuredly isn’t far off.
But by far the worst change in Tracy is her attitude. Once agreeable and reasonable, she’s now sullen, insolent, uncooperative and reflexively defiant. Evie is a Svengali of the first order, changing her friend from a decent kid to a total nightmare in record time. She’s also a con artist. Claiming her mother is dead and that the boyfriend of her guardian, Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), beats her, she manipulates Melanie into letting her move into the house indefinitely. With Melanie having also taken in a homeless girlfriend with a baby, her home mutates into a sort of halfway house for losers and malcontents where Evie easily pulls the strings.
Melanie doesn’t have a clue how to cope with her out-of-control daughter, much less with the menagerie that’s camping out around her feet, and the mother’s tearful, hysterical ineffectualness serves to make the picture less interesting than if she were able to counter her daughter’s contrariness with occasionally effective shots of her own. It’s no wonder Tracy drifts so easily into bad behavior and attention-getting suicide attempts given the authority vacuum at home (even though her older brother seems relatively well-adjusted), but this actually serves to invite limiting the film to case-study status by underlining the parental neglect factor.
On a scene-by-scene basis, pic packs a punch, as Hardwicke bores relentlessly in on hormonally charged behavior that thoroughly convinces even as it appalls. Style is one of intensified naturalism, with realistic dialogue and raging emotionalism defining a sorry state of affairs audiences may tend to generalize into a broad picture of youth. But it remains a vivid revelation of the sort of adolescent impulses that can easily erupt given the lack of any restraints, and as such it’s a sobering picture, albeit one with some light at the end of the tunnel.
Wood and Reed are asked to carry the picture and do so quite credibly; after all the bonding and intimacy, their mutually excoriating final face-off is a doozy. Having an actress as fine as Hunter playing the mother makes one wish the role had been better fleshed out in the writing, while other perfs are adequate in even more one-dimensional roles.
Tech contributions are good, with Elliot Davis’ lensing becoming increasingly parched and desaturated as the characters lose their meager moorings.