Thirteen delivers a resolute slap in the face to the constant barrage of teen franchises that clutter the big screen. Taking an unadulterated look at the extreme highs and lows of teenage life, the film shares the gritty realism of Larry Clark’s Kids and Bully, but ultimately lacks their cynical brutality. The film’s emotional resonance is lent in no small part by the fact that the screenplay was written by co-star Nikki Reed when she was only 13 (with the help of director Catherine Hardwicke, who was dating her father at the time) – a precocious feat which gives the film an extra air of authenticity.
Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) is just another normal 13-year-old girl, happy to play with her Barbie dolls, wear the clothes her mum buys her, and channel her budding teen angst into verses of poetry. That all changes when she enters junior high and faces the full onslaught of adolescence and peer pressure. "Who let her out of the cabbage patch?" taunts one girl. She soon ditches her childish ways and sets about befriending the most popular girl in school, Evie (Reed). From the moment they exchange telephone numbers their unfolding friendship is played out with a ferocious intensity. They become inseparable, stepping out in identikit outfits, sharing a secret language and indulging in all manner of illegal activities.
Tracy’s transformation from girl-next-door into a promiscuous, drug-taking, shoplifting teen-from-hell takes its inevitable toll on her relationship with her mother Mel. Played by Holly Hunter, the reformed alcoholic becomes the focus of her daughter’s uncontrollable rage. "Mum, I’m not your baby anymore," she protests. Matters become even more strained when Mel’s boyfriend Brady, an ex-drug addict played by Six Feet Under’s Jeremy Sisto, moves in. As Tracy pushes her mother further and further away, Evie attempts to scheme her way into Mel’s affections.
The film perfectly captures the essence of adolescence – when nothing your parents do is any good, the whole world is expected to revolve around you and your best friend can turn out to be your worst enemy. First-time director Hardwicke builds up a strong story and the performances from the two young leads are particularly impressive. Hunter as always is fantastic. But with its frenzied shots, bleached hues and edgy soundtrack, Thirteen resembles an over-saturated pop video which proves at times distracting. Coupled with Tracy’s unrelenting histrionics, the film can be a gruelling cinematic experience.
Thirteen should really come with a parental advisory label – not so much for the benefit of teenagers, who ironically are barred from seeing the film due to its 18 rating, but to warn parents that this will undoubtedly be the scariest film they will ever see. The scene where Tracy and Evie high on aerosols, laughingly plead with each other to "hit me, hit me harder" is truly disturbing. For everyone else the story of a teenager’s rebellion will strike a definite chord, if not put them off having children altogether. Uncomfortable but compelling viewing.