Posted on 11/11/06 11:21 AM
My problem with most teen movies is that they tend to be either too exagerated or underdeveloped. Their depictions of adolescence lack conviction and realism. All of them, at least in the era after the great John Hughes, seem to think that every high school is the same, every kid is a stereotype and that jocks reign supreme while all the nerds serve as easy targets for cruelty.
The fact is, teenagers don't exist in a black and white world. Movies like She's All That and Jawbreaker should take a lesson from Thirteen, a film that shows teenage life at its most tragic. This is a movie where the ugly truth about peer pressure and fitting in is put on display without apology or remorse. Where the emotional fragility that comes with growing up is put through hell and is never the same again. In other words, it's the real thing.
The story is told through the eyes of naive Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), a middle schooler with an average but happy life. She has the kind of outlook on life that every girl her age needs. She lives in a single-parent home with her brother (Brady Corbet) and mother (Holly Hunter). When the first day of seventh grade arrives, Tracy begins to develop a sudden craving to be part of the "it-crowd", and decides to ditch her friends in an attempt to meet Evie (co-writer Nikki Reed), the most popular girl in school. When she finally approaches her new-found idol she's surprised when Evie gives her number to go shopping after school. Tracy wouldn't dream of passing the opportunity up, and her decision to befriend Evie causes a chain reaction of corrupt behavior, sex and drugs that will change her life forever.
The most striking thing about Thirteen is that it more-or-less resembles real-life. This day and age is a dangerous time to be hitting puberty, and that is exactly what the movie says about contemporary America. At a time in life where the evils of society shouldn't be near a thirteen-year old, they seem to be disturbingly invited. Tracy and Evie are just as inclined to steal as a pair of middle-aged panhandlers, as willing to destroy as an immoral drug-dealer. The only difference is that these two don't have any of the responsibilities that come with adulthood, only the consequences of pre-mature corruption.
With all the poignancy that develops throughout, Thirteen's power also comes from its uncompromising view of what teenagers do when there's no parents or authority watching over them. With its R-rated content surely deserved, this is a movie that ironicly deserves to be seen as a family film. Parents with a pre-teen should make an exception to constricting their children to violent movies and sit down with them for this one. In a year or two, they'll be glad when their kids are practicing abstinence when the majority of their classmates won't know what the word is.
So, I've established Thirteen as an important movie. This, above all, is thanks to a script that was written with authenticity by a girl who knows how it feels to be changed by her age. Nikki Reed, along with director Catherine Hardwicke, has told a brutal but undeniably effective story. But the problem with its impact comes in the technical storytelling. Hardwicke, who manages to get great performances out of everyone onscreen, doesn't always do the right thing with the visuals. There are moments that, with more subtle and restrained energy, could have been better than they are.
For example, when Tracy first meets Evie, Hardwicke uses a few freeze-frames too many and imploys rock music that camps up an otherwise serious scene. The same is done to a number of the girls' most horrific moments, where the camera moves as much as it needs to, but doesn't stop. For a movie that holds so much contempt toward contemporary America, it tries awfully hard to fit in to the MTV clique of teen cinema.
The only flaw to the movie's content comes with its treatment of social acceptance. Unlike real-life, Thirteen classifies its characters into two-dimensional ideas, not as individuals, but as groups. I don't notice much segregation in terms of popularity at my high school, but it seems to exist beyond belief here. After meeting Evie, Tracy completely abandons her former friends because she feels herself as superior in terms of her social status. This wouldn't be such a problem if the movie wasn't aiming for realism, but in reality, teenagers aren't this subjective to their temporary reputation in high school.
But Thirteen's message is so strong that people will be probably look past these flaws and take the movie as is. It defies the limits of modern teen movies and substitutes truth for PG-13 falsity. In its attempt to tell the audience what really goes on when teenagers have the freedom to do whatever they want, it leaves its mark long after the last shot ends. For every parent and teenager living in denial about the social tragedies that surround them, Thirteen is required viewing.