No, this isn’t a new Victor Salva film.
Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) has hit the big one-three and wants nothing more than to befriend the cool, more developed bad girl, Evie (Nikki Reed). After proving she can be a thief, all it takes is some good old fashioned conniving and sluttery to gel a friendship that will lead to all sorts of deviant behavior. Her mother (Holly Hunter) is trying to raise her with an absentee father, but it takes plenty of strength to recover from alcoholism – good thing she has a recovering crack-addict boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto) to keep her strong. But when Tracy’s behavior comes to damn-near ruining her life for good, something has to be done about it. After all, one day she’ll be fourteen!!
This film owes everything to its performances. And praise should go to director Catherine Hardwicke as well for drawing such a powerful delivery from young and old alike. Newcomer Evan Rachel Wood is absolutely wonderful in the lead. Her eyes are present in every scene and her emotional reality runs the gamut from stoned through manic with ease. Nikki Reed, incidentally the co-writer, basing the story on her supposed true life experience, is not quite as inspiring, but still quite convincing, having witnessed the “bad influence” first-hand.
Holly Hunter once again proves herself to be one of the best actresses of our time and gives a performance worthy of more than just some old Oscar. One of my favorite supporting actresses, Deborah Unger, nails another emotionally unsound character. And Jeremy Sisto, one of my new favorites, gives an expected naturalistic performance as the mother’s young boyfriend. Newcomer Brady Corbet is nothing less than brilliant as the vaguely concerned brother, creating a subtle and utterly believable supporting role.
Where Thirteen falls short is in its plot structure. I’m not entirely sure what the point is. If it’s to make us all afraid of having children, then I suppose it’s effective. But Tracy’s experience does not ring typical to me, as it doesn’t take much to get her stealing and whoring. In some ways, it seems a little ridiculous, true story notwithstanding. The film is incapable of reaching any meaningful conclusion because there is no immediate dramatic conflict. It’s more of a slice of life, where a girl is introduced to puberty and dishonesty all at once. Still, it’s a believable and disturbing slice.
Hardwicke seems to have shot the whole thing from far away with a digital zoom, making it grainy and jumpy. This works well with the frenetic storyline, but might be irritating for some (like me). The beat-laden soundtrack also adds a teenaged feel to the film, which may throw some off, but still seems appropriate. Some may question why all African Americans in the film are presented as sexual predators, but white trash takes a serious beating as well.
Thirteen asks how we can expect young people, especially young people in LA, to resist the plethora of external forces waiting to corrupt them – exactly them. How much can a mother do and how much can we leave up to good judgment?
All in all, this is a moving and powerful film that stutters a bit in terms of narrative drive. And while there may be some shocking moments, there isn’t anything new you couldn’t have predicted. But ultimately it lands firmly on its feet with profound and moving performances. B+
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