Lost in the Movies: Thirteen


Thirteen occupies a fascinating in-between space not just in its subject matter - a girl catapulted from anchored childhood "innocence" to unmoored adolescent "corruption" in a matter of months - but in its milieu and even, at least from today's standpoint, its time period: the character is caught in a place neither destitute nor privileged, and the film exists in an era that is far from the immediate present but also not quite the distant past. Tracy Freeland (Evan Rachel Wood) certainly doesn't have much access to the wealth and luxury she witnesses all around her in L.A. Her divorced mother Melanie (Holly Hunter) is a recovering alcoholic hairdresser operating out of her own home, working constantly to make ends meet and frequently failing when her own generosity gets in the way. Because that's the thing: as tough as it is for the Freeland family, it's even rougher for those who pass through their home (and sometimes stick around). Melanie is constantly allowing customers to eat her food, skip out on a payment, and even move in with them as they work out their own living situation. Overflowing with compassion, she can't help herself despite her awareness of how chaotic the situation is for her own children, especially when compounded by an especially unwanted houseguest: her boyfriend Brady (Jeremy Sisto), just out of rehab. Yet even this circus seems comforting when contrasted to the situation of Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed), Tracy's traumatized friend who is as needy as she is reckless, as vulnerable as she is ruthlessly manipulative.

I initially placed "innocence" in quotes for Tracy not only to problematize the "fallen girl" paradigm that Thirteen complicates (although it also frequently flirts with this trope), but also because this isn't quite how Tracy's arc unfolds. Sure, she presents herself in a more childlike way at first, and near the film's end - when confronted with an (admittedly absurd) assertion that Tracy led Evie astray - Melanie declares that "Before she started hanging out with Evie, Tracy still played with Barbies," which hardly seems like hyperbole. At the same time, however, Tracy is forced by her domestic situation to adopt a certain wise maturity from the outset: she needs to help her all-over-the-place mom around the house and deal with challenges and obligations many of the more sheltered kids her age can avoid. And her penchant for poetry suggests a wise old soul, harboring an emotional depth belied by her appearance and demeanor. In one of the film's most affecting early moments, Melanie pauses to hear her daughter read a recent poem and is shaken: "That's really good...I'll be honest, it kind of scares me a little bit." With this in mind, I initially wondered if the narrative trajectory would be a coming-out-of-age rather than a coming-of-age. In a subversive twist, would Tracy's inevitable teen rebellion actually function as an ironic turn toward immaturity, an escape into mindless irresponsibility for someone tired of grappling with the weight of grown-up concerns? Not exactly; but I still appreciate how Thirteen refuses to simply situate Tracy as a blinkered blank at its outset - demonstrated most starkly by her secretive cutting, long before Evie enters her life. Her dramatic turmoil will represent growth as expansion and negation.

Evie is introduced early into the fabric of Thirteen, as a cool girl dressed in black whom the timid, gawky Tracy admires from afar; even her own big brother Mason (Brady Corbet) pays more attention to "the hottest girl in the eighth grade" than the sister he seems embarrassed to acknowledge in the schoolyard. She eventually impresses her new friend with fashion choices and a willingness to shoplift, and soon they're getting tattoos and piercings, sneaking out at night, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and fooling around with boys (including the young adult who lives next door, in a very uncomfortable sequence). As Tracy races headlong into this world, she wrestles with the problems that linger from her pre-rebellion days (of just a few weeks ago): her absent father (D.W. Moffett) who's "working so hard to support the family" that he can't actually spend a weekend with her (and more damningly, can't even perceive let alone concern himself with her trouble), her mother's much-hated boyfriend who - in a nice surprise - turns out to be a fairly decent guy and not the abusive asshole we initially fear, and of course her increasingly estranged doting mom who is baffled by Tracy's distance and abrasiveness, an entirely new development for the loyal, sensitive child she thought she knew. Compounding this confusion, Evie practically adopts herself into the Freeland family, appealing to Melanie's maternal aspect with a mix of touching sincerity and exhausting wiliness. Are her tales of horrible physical and sexual assault, for which she bears scars both literal and emotional, facts, fictions, or jumbled-up concoctions of both? What are her intentions? Eventually we realize that Evie herself probably doesn't even know; she's constantly maneuvering against demons and desires that she's far too young to understand, but experienced enough to command - that is, when they aren't commanding her.

Eventually mother and daughter tacitly concur that Evie needs to move back in with her current guardian Brooke LaLaine (Deborah Kara Unger), whose plastic surgery-sliced ears play like some kind of metaphor for her relationship to her ward. Evie's sense of betrayal is heartbreaking, and when Tracy leaves her weeping in the cluttered backyard, the film's most tragic storyline draws to a not-very-hopeful close. After this, Evie will be an enemy, accompanying Brooke to confront Melanie and Tracy with evidence of their abundant theft, drug use, and self-harm, and pinning all of the blame on Tracy. But we won't forget that peek inside her own, more irredeemably fucked-up life...or what it portends. Tracy is, finally, more fortunate; freaking out as Melanie expels Brooke and Evie, she tries to shake her mother off, but Melanie literally won't let her go. Embracing her trembling child in the kitchen, eventually spending the night holding her close as if re-integrating her into the womb, Melanie repeats that she loves her like a mantra and it isn't the words but the force behind the words that convinces daughter and audience alike. In one of her most astonishing performances in a career full of such work, Hunter's Melanie smashes through the wall that Tracy has inadvertently erected with a wave of raw, powerful emotion which literally saturates the screen: the final montage depicts the drab, dulled aesthetic of the film's final act slowly returning to the colorful palette that opened the movie. The last shot depicts Tracy sitting up in bed, her mother still sleeping by her side as if depleted by the transfer of energy, wondering silently, "What now?"

The style of the film mixes raw, verite mobility with flashy hyper-montage cutting - in other words, it very much embraces the early zeroes MTV fusion of reality TV and music video. At times this can feel quite dated and it took me a while to decide if I thought this was an example of style over substance. At times the style works better for me than others - I like the lightning-fast scan Evie does of Tracy's wardrobe - and anyway, there's clearly a lot of depth to the drama however one feels about its presentation. Given the already-tricky matter of the film's content, the form also adds to the impression that perhaps Thirteen is too exploitative, veering between the hypocritical extremes of callow glamorization and tidy moralization. Ultimately, though, this sense of confusion adds to the movie's texture, encouraging us to feel as lost in Tracy's contradictory impressions as she is. This isn't a movie that simply stands above its protagonist's experiences to judge them with a mixture of compassion and condescension (which isn't to say it's a movie that never indulges those modes). Contributing to our complex identification is the subjectivity lent to both Tracy and Melanie, a reflection perhaps of the dynamic screenwriting split between two first-time writers coming from radically different places.

Catherine Hardwicke, a veteran production designer in her mid-forties, used this homemade project to launch a successful directorial career while Nikki Reed, only fourteen, found an opportunity to express her own recent experience of rebellion under the mentorship of Hardwicke - not only on the page but onscreen (she plays Evie). Reed, the daughter of one of Hardwicke's friends (and exes), underwent a radical transformation around the time she herself turned thirteen, engaging in risky behavior and defying her parents and other adults more openly. Hardwicke, seeking both to understand what the girl was going through and hopefully redirect some of her energy into a creative endeavor, encouraged an unusual collaboration - a conversation of sorts rendered into a relatively linear narrative. If this accounts for some of the film's unevenness, it's also what lends it so much of its strength and the two qualities are probably inseparable. Meanwhile, Hardwicke's production history clearly informs the sensitivity with which she renders the Freeland house, one of the most memorable if low-key locations I've seen in a film. She went on to direct the teen horror/romance phenomenon Twilight in 2008, a film reviled by many cinephiles but defended by those, particularly young female critics, who admire its ability to reach an enthusiastic audience and appreciate the unique and frequently criticized (for opposite reasons) voices of Hardwicke and Kristen Stewart. I've long been curious about these defenses, not having seen the movie, and am all the more so now that I know its connection to Thirteen, in which there is so much to praise.

Finally, to return to that in-between quality mentioned at the outset of this review, Thirteen's 2002 setting makes for a unique viewing experience in 2019. The world onscreen doesn't quite feel like a period piece to me; partly a function of my own age, admittedly, as I was already several years older than the protagonists when the film came out but haven't yet passed into the mother's age range in the present. I think it's also because, to touch on a common theme I've addressed in many podcasts and recent reviews (or upcoming ones - like Lady Bird), cultural stereotypes about the 2000s decade haven't quite coalesced in the popular imagination after sixteen years, the way tropes about every decade from the fifties through the eighties and even (a bit more eclectically) the nineties have by now. Yet the absence of social media, of smart phones, of any real online culture at all is stark and notable. A remake or update a full generation later (and it's worth noting that the subjects of such a film wouldn't even have been born when this one takes place) would have to take all of these additional factors into consideration. With its emphasis on early cell phone communication (I can't even recall much if any texting), Thirteen feels as much like the end of one era as the dawn of another. I'd be curious to hear from anyone who's grown up since this period what about the film feels antique and what remains relevant. Of course, the underlying themes and relationships in Thirteen's strongest moments are powerful because they feel universal, even as this movie roots them in the particularity of time, place, and character.

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