Blessed with an honesty of tone, an aggression of camera movement and fierceness of its leads, Thirteen on its face has all the makings of a very "now" look at teen life. Director Catherine Hardwicke, collaborating on the script with co-star Nikki Reed (who was 13 when she wrote her first draft) are bent on updating life in hell. Indeed, this Darwinian nightmare of blind consumerism, peer pressure and, of course, sex, drugs and ... well, not rock and roll so much as hip-hop suggests that as time goes on the ante is continually upped for "these kids today."
At its best, Thirteen drags the viewer kicking and screaming through high school halls filled with tanned, bare bellies, clinging jeans and spaghetti-strap blouses and a general sense of simmering anger -- but most of all, teens with 'tude. Rolling the dice on that favored digital-film tool -- the jaunty hand-held camera -- Hardwicke tromps down the halls and around campus showing her heroine Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) at first just struggling to survive the fact she has no fashion sense. That's a death sentence in high school, where teens look for any possible weakness to exploit and usually find one in the failure to grasp the magic (and affordability) of L.A.'s Melrose Avenue shops.
By this point, the story's beginning, Tracy seems a likeable enough if gullible sort, sharing her home with her older brother and single mom Melanie (Holly Hunter), who is barely hanging on herself. In fact, Hunter's Melanie might just be the film's most intriguing, especially when Hunter has spent the bulk of her career playing strong characters. Here she's a recovering alcoholic who sometimes looks more like Tracy's older sister and certainly tries to dress like one, comparing clothing and borrowing makeup. With an absentee father for an ex-husband and a boyfriend who's got his own issues, Melanie holds her own demons at bay while spouting hip and hollow parenting cliches like "We need to spend some quality time together" because that's all she seems to have the time and energy to muster even if, in the long run, she really does care.
But this is Tracy's story, and co-star Nikki Reed -- playing opposite Wood as the more attractive and more dangerous friend Evie -- unfortunately shows her age in conveying telling details but without depth of perception or context. Tracy comes from a broken home. Tracy wants to fit in with the (apparently) cool crowd, embodied in the emboldened Evie. Tracy steals so they can all go shopping together. Tracy does drugs. Tracy goes down on a black boy! How will it end? Wait a minute -- how did we even get here without taking some of the most predictable routes in troubled-teen cinema? Reed may well have a good idea of how rough it is stumbling breasts first into puberty, but neither she (nor Hardwicke) has the screenwriting sophistication to create any kind of original story arc. By movie's end, all we're left to believe is that, to get through all of this, maybe all we need is a really good nap with Mom.
The little brushes of detail still keep coming back, though, most notably in how an MTV-addled girlhood feels compelled to explore its burgeoning sexuality with no road map. One moment Tracy's practicing kissing technique on Evie in a scene with only a whiff of lesbianism, the next she's forcing herself and Evie on her surfer-dude neighbor who previously had been an innocent bystander. She's all dressed up but doesn't know where or how to go. Wood does what she can with her character, a bundle of sexual confusion and general frustration, though Reed as the seductive and dangerous Evie is more fun to watch.
Hardwicke and Reed also succeed in showing how teens have become even more media-savvy than their parents and are able to use this to exploit their elders. As Melanie slowly suspects just how bad an influence Evie is becoming on Tracy -- moving into the house and setting up shop -- she suggests maybe it's time to leave. I can't, Evie protests. You see, I've been molested. But was she? We never learn, perhaps Hardwicke's way of showing how teens have won the manipulation battle in generational wars; maybe it doesn't matter.
Thirteen might be better than Larry Clarke's borderline exploitative works (Kids, Bully) in their avoidance of complete nihilism, but it still fails to break more meaningful group. It'll be interesting to see what happens when Catherine Hardwicke (previously a production designer) and her teen collaborator, Nikki Reed, grow up.