thirteen (2003)


director: catherine hardwicke

holly hunter, evan rachel wood, nikki reed

A parent will watch a film like Thirteen with either foreboding terror or grim recognition, depending on the age of their kids, but it’s probably more useful to imagine how a young woman will respond to this tale of teen social terror.

If they’re like actor and co-writer Nikki Reed, whose own recent life was the apparent basis for the film, they’ll have some mix of relief and regret when watching how a sweet little girl can suddenly turn into a slatternly, drug-taking mini-minx. In any case, there’s a comforting phrase - “It was just a phase” - to paper over the damage.

Thirteen is a horror movie, in the purest sense of the word, from the first scene, when we watch Reed and Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), stoned and giddy, merrily beat the hell out of each other in some sadistic new variation on a slumber party. The film then leaps back a month or two, to when Tracy was just a pretty little girl on the cusp of adolescence, longingly watching the popular girls at school, and Reed in particular, bask in the attention you get from skimpy clothes and early development.

A bit of courage and a wardrobe change buys Tracy an in with the in crowd, and in no time Reed has moved in with her family, starts stashing drugs all over her bedroom, and encourages Tracy to trade sex for piercings. At first her mom - Holly Hunter as a boho single mom with a soulful ex-junkie boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto), stretching her child support by cutting hair in their living room - approves.

It’s no surprise - as Hunter plays her, Tracy’s mom is more in love with her daughter’s youth than any model of adulthood, the kind of woman whose faintly sexualized concept of motherhood gets played beautifully by Reed, who flirts and plays the victim for sympathy.

When Tracy starts losing control, Hunter calls in the girl’s father, whose only response is both comic and tragic: “Baby, you’ve got to cut me some slack.” Hardwicke’s film is at its best with these well-observed touches, which obviously come from a real familiarity with the world of girls like Tracy and their overwhelmed mothers. Perhaps unintentionally, her film makes a great case for traditional families and the nastiness of teen culture, a confusion of intention that makes Thirteen all the more unsettling.