Coming-of-age films are quickly turning into insipid Hollywood trends since Freddie Prinze Jr. The basic idea of a child transitioning into adulthood has long been a reliable premise for corny after-school specials, but recently, coming-of-age stories have exploded into mainstream cinemas, instead of staying on the Hallmark Channel where the majority of them belong.
Thirteen, thankfully, avoids most clichEs. Although it’s the story of two 13-year-old girls, the film does not once feel forced or awkward-two characteristics that have become common in most coming-of-age tales. Credit for this goes to director and co-writer Catherine Hardwicke, who is so emotionally invested in the story that she would never allow its realistic nature to be compromised by anyone.
Hardwicke co-wrote the script with Nikki Reed, who was 13 at the time of writing, and 14 when she made her acting debut with a major role in the film. Hardwicke, a veteran production designer (Three Kings) who won the Directing Award at Sundance for Thirteen, had known Reed for years and became concerned when she saw serious changes in her attitude and appearance. She proposed screenwriting as a way to calm her down and the result was this fictional account of the difficult time Reed was going through in her early teenage years.
The film begins with a brutal scene showing Reed and the film’s star, Evan Rachel Wood (Simone), sitting on a bed, each begging the other to punch her in the face. They feel no pain as they inhale some kind of aerosol fumes and as the blood starts to ooze from their wounds-all they can do is laugh.
The story then backs up several months, before Wood’s character, Tracy, ever met Reed’s (Evie). Tracy lives with her mother, Mel (The Crying Game’s Holly Hunter), who runs a salon in an impoverished section of Los Angeles. Admiring the cool group at school, Tracy gets acquainted with their unofficial leader, Evie, who, despite having money, steals clothes. The two girls become best friends and Evie drags Tracy into a world filled with shoplifting, drugs, sex and self-mutilation. Hunter gives another excellent performance as Tracy’s mom, who desperately tries to help her daughter in vain.
Thirteen is extremely powerful from an emotional standpoint. Hardwicke shakes the camera violently and drenches the film in shades of blue to add a depressing tone and to fiercely engage the viewer. A major flaw is that none of the main characters elicits enough sympathy. Evie is the only one who appears almost entirely evil, while Tracy’s innocence is lost quickly, and even Mel, who the audience wants to like and feel for, has screwed up her own life so much that she is hardly qualified to save Tracy. Mel’s boyfriend tries to help, but he’s a former drug addict who never looks too far away from starting up again.
This is a tough film to watch, but it is even tougher to forget. There are graphic scenes (e.g., Tracy cutting herself) that are sure to make the audience look away, but this is exactly what Hardwicke wants because, in a year (or ten), the film that made people cringe will stick with them and those cheesy TV movies will be long forgotten.
Shawn Wines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org