When I was thirteen, back in the Dark Ages, I seem to recall spending most of my time either at the cinema, cycling around aimlessly, listening to Bowie, or shut in my room feeling miserable and unloved. In other words, for about two thirds of my time I was bored. This wasn't unusual; as a teenager, you were expected to be bored because it was considered an excellent preparation for adult life. This acceptance of boredom as a way of life seems to have vanished, now that parents feel honour bound to spend vast wads of cash on occupying every minute of their beloved child's life with diversion. These memories came to the fore many times while I was watching Thirteen, the debut movie by Catherine Hardwicke and one of the most troubling and distressing films I've seen for some time. The young protagonists in this film could use a little boredom. Seeing a young girl - only just a teenager - self-mutilating, getting wrecked on dubious substances and discussing the taste of semen with her equally wayward friend is a fairly horrible experience - but there's no denying that Hardwicke's film is compelling and disturbing in a way which is hard to get out of your mind.
Thirteen is, broadly speaking, a character study of Tracy (Wood), a thirteen year old girl who has just started Junior High School. A bright and likeable student, she initially seems to be doing well but she feels a spark of dissatisfaction when she sees the most popular girl in the school, Evie (Reed). Tracy decides that she must become friends with Evie at whatever cost and this takes her on a journey into a darkness which baffles her mother Melanie (Hunter), who can seemingly do nothing to help.
None of this is exactly original. Since Rebel Without A Cause in 1955 - or even Reefer Madness in 193 - we've been inundated with films about how teenage life is hell. What distinguishes Thirteen is that it doesn't fall into some of the clichéd traps of its forebears. For one thing, most previous films on the subject are concerned with how the repressive parents don't understand their free-spirited offspring. In this movie, Melanie is a pretty good mother - kind, patient, indulgent and concerned - and the suggestion is that regardless of whatever Melanie had been like, Tracy would have been fucked up, because the things which destroy her are beyond the control of the mother. Melanie certainly has a strong personality and she is an active member of AA who is determined to remain sober but it's never suggested that she neglects or smothers her daughter. There's a powerfully moving scene at the end when Melanie holds on to Tracy and won't let go and Holly Hunter's spectacular performance convinces us that this woman really would die to save her child if that's what she had to do. The problem for Melanie, of course, is that this isn't enough because Tracy is slipping away from her and can only be saved from within herself. The final scene, a cathartic scream which works beautifully, suggests how this might be possible but there's no sense that any pat solutions have been found and the scream issued by Tracy has an animalistic quality which suggests anguish as much as release. Hunter conveys the confusion and despair of Melanie with all the skill we would expect. She really is a marvellous actress, as films such as Broadcast News and The Piano have demonstrated, but this is a particularly impressive performance because of the way it selflessly supports that of Evan Rachel Wood. Melanie becomes sidelined in the story and Hunter is happy to let that happen. When she holds the screen - as in her sharp, funny scenes with Jeremy Sisko or in the riveting showdown at the end with the appalling Brooke, when she's like a lioness fighting to protect her young.
Inevitably, the film is stolen by the principal teenage girls. Evan Rachel Wood has been in the business since she was 7 but this performance is an explosion of talent that is entirely unexpected. Tracy is a hard character to play well because she's a bit of a cliche, but Wood renews the over-familiar aspects of the part. In the beginning, ironically, she's pretty and likeable and by the end she's become a waif-like zombie and Wood manages the change in stages, preventing it from seeming too sudden. The exhilaration of stealing, getting high on aerosols, drinking and discovering the dubious delights of sex is conveyed with heart-rending immediacy. Two scenes really stand out. The first is the controversial opening, when Tracy sits on her bed opposite Evie and asks to be hit. The two girls begin to go at each other with a will and it's almost impossible to watch when, an hour later, we return to the scene and see how nasty it gets. The second, more difficult sequence is when we see Tracy self-mutilating, first with a pair of scissors and then with a razor blade. That this isn't the first time this has happened is evident - not only does Tracy have some barely perceptible scars, she also has a hiding place for her implements. What Wood captures, which is very rare in my experience, is the confused emotions which self-harm gives rise to. On the one hand there is excruciating pain, reflecting the self-hatred inside, but there's also genuine masochistic pleasure taking place, a delight in externalising one's inner suffering. I've never seen this depicted quite as realistically before and it's a triumph for Wood to have done it so skillfully.
Evie is a less interesting role, as I suspect Nikki Reed knew when she was writing it. Her character arc is limited and she doesn't change much during the film. But Reed captures the confused motives and personality changes with some skill - the way she says what she thinks people want to here so they give her what she wants; the confusion about what in her past is lies and what is true; the confused emotions she has for Tracy, on the one hand despising her for being so faithful and on the other, genuinely loving her and caring what happens to her. In the final third of the film, there's a potent scene where Evie hugs Tracy and pledges eternal love just before Tracy discovers what a pack of lies her friend has told her mother. It's interesting - if oddly unsurprising - to learn that Reed was very much the 'good girl' and the opposite to Evie in real life. Perhaps its observing the Evies of this world from afar that made her able to write about them. Reed has also said that she took some of the character of Tracy from herself, but that it was more an inner turmoil in her case rather than the complete breakdown.
The rest of the cast is absolutely fine. Brady Corbert is subtle and believable as Tracy's brother Mason, a boy who has his own vices - principally smoking weed - but knows where to draw the line. He has a range of looks and silences which help to make it believable that he and Wood might be related. The other teenagers are all too believable and among the adults, it's fair to single out Jeremy Sisko as Brady. He's not a bad guy, far from it, but he's totally out of his depth trying to be a replacement father when he's only just come out of rehab. There's also a nice cameo from D.W.Moffatt as Tracy's real father, trying to simultaneously get his daughter sorted out and hold down a pressuring job.
Like many first-time directors who have long gestated the desire to make their own movies, Catherine Hardwicke has used a very distinctive shooting style which could be called self-indulgent but which actually adds a great deal to the material. The film was shot on 16MM and was then blown up to 35MM for the release prints and it has a grainy, slightly fuzzy quality which adds a certain sense of cinema verite to the proceedings. There's a lot of hand-held camera work used in order to get us as close - both physically and metaphorically - to Tracy as possible but Hardwicke also knows when to use a more traditional static style when necessary. Hardwicke is especially good at developing the rhythm of a scene, changing tempo when necessary and building up to often exhausting emotional climaxes. Occasionally, she indulges in show-off montages - I particularly liked the use of a fast series of close-ups of bits of the girls clothing and accoutrements in order to make the point about their superficiality – but these are well integrated into the overall visual scheme.
What is fascinating and immensely gratifying about the film is that it refuses to give easy answers or to indulge in finger-pointing. Evie is certainly a superficial girl but she's not evil or cruel. Hardwicke suggests the causes of the malaise which affects the girls - consumerism, media influences, peer-pressure - but doesn't preach. Each viewer can take what they want from the film. It's not as unjudgemental as one of Larry Clark's films, nor does it lay itself open to similar charges of exploitation. There is a lot of drug taking here and a number of sexual situations but they are presented so coldly that it's hard to feel any emotion other than either disgust or pity - or perhaps both. Every viewer has to make up their own mind about the factors which destroy Tracy and I suspect that Hardwicke is intending a critique of a society which allows children to grow up more quickly than they should do; that sexualises adolescents before they can learn about their emotions for themselves; that prizes image over substance; that can't find anything better to do with children who are going off the deep end than label them with a disorder. But the suggestion is also there that there is something within Tracy that is self-destructive that would have come out at some time whatever had happened. Tracy is allowed a cautious redemption in the last moments of the film but at what cost ? The film doesn't offer any easy answers but it's not cynical and it's not uncommitted. It's a cry of rage at what happens to Tracy and, as such, it's harrowing, powerful and upsetting. Yet it's not depressing because, like Gary Oldman in the similarly disturbing Nil By Mouth and Lukas Moodysson's brilliant Lilya 4-Ever, Hardwicke allows her characters moments of happiness and epiphany to suggest that, dark as it seems, the light in the world hasn't entirely been extinguished.
Although Thirteen is still playing in some UK cinemas, it's already available on R1 DVD. This seems to be increasingly common as release dates become more erratic - Lost In Translation is another example. The DVD of Hardwicke's film is nicely presented with some good extras and is worth a look if you missed the film on its recent cinema release.
The film is presented both in a pan and scan fullscreen version, which I will be ignoring, and in an anamorphic 1.85 presentation. The latter is a good transfer. This movie is meant to look slightly rough and ready and the transfer reflects this. It was filmed in 16MM and then blown up to 35MM. However, while the transfer is often deliberately soft and grainy, this is intentional. There are no noticeable problems with artefacting. The colours are particularly well represented - as noted above, the film begins in warm pastel colours but becomes increasingly desaturated as Tracy's life goes off the rails until it ends up as almost monochrome. The main flaw is some obvious edge enhancement.
The soundtrack is a strong 5.1 mix which offers an immersive and atmospheric experience. The dialogue is always clear and spreads out over the front channels and the background noise frequently makes use of the surrounds. Loud rock music is omnipresent and deliberately oppressive.
There are three main extra features, two of which are worthwhile. The two dispensable bonuses are a 6 minute "Making-Of" featurette which is far too brief to be anything but superficial and the somewhat tiresome theatrical trailer, the effect of which is like having your head bashed against a wall for three minutes. However, honour is restored by an excellent commentary track featuring Catherine Hardwicke, Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed and Brady Corbert. This is sometimes very funny and doesn't take the film too seriously, which is a relief since it's far too good to be given the stigma of being self-consciously "serious art". Hardwicke gives some insight into her reasoning behind various directorial choices and the three teenage actors have an obvious rapport. Both Wood and Reed come across as considerably more intelligent than the characters they play, not that this would be difficult. Finally, we get ten deleted scenes with optional commentary from Hardwicke. These are all in non-anamorphic widescreen and it's easy to see why they weren't included in the finished cut. They're worth a look if you like the film as some of them add to the character development but none of them are essential viewing.
English and Spanish subtitles are provided for the film but not for the extra features.
Thirteen is an incredibly powerful if somewhat depressing film which highlights an extreme situation rather than a commonplace in order to make a point about the emptiness of our culture and what it might be doing to our children. The DVD presents it well and is recommended, although anyone with a tender sensibility might not want to bother.