The troubled lives of modern teen girls is the focus of Thirteen, a film like Kids or Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love and Lilya 4-ever. Like those other features, it does so with a frank pseudo-documentary style and plot that may verge on shocking for some. But unlike Kids, this isn’t a cautionary sexual fable. More like Moodysson’s movies, Thirteen is about love lasting and eventually triumphing through and over mundane adversity and dysfunction.
Tracy Freeland (Evan Rachel Wood, S1m0ne) starts seventh grade as a precociously gifted poetess whose bedroom quietly betrays that turbulent phase between girlhood and young womanhood: Stuffed animals gather dust on her nightstand while pictures of male models torn from magazines make a shrine of sexy hunks on the wall over the head of her bed.
Her mom, Melanie (Holly Hunter, Levity), is single, with two teenaged kids (the other is Tracy’s surfer-boy big brother, Mason, played by newcomer Brady Corbet) and trying to make ends meet by doing hair at home. She constantly struggles with controlling her household and her substance abuse. Melanie’s love for Tracy is shown by her attempts to spend time with her between hair appointments and 12-step meetings.
First-time writer-director Catherine Hardwicke (production designer for Laurel Canyon) and novice writer and star Nikki Reed turn the plot when Tracy courts her way into the clique of the class “hottie” (Reed).
Of course, the clique is one of the clichés of teen stories. But Hardwicke gives it a more socially relevant and darker subtext. When Tracy meets Evie, its Evie’s fashion accessories that get a fusillade of close-ups. At Pertola Middle School, “hot” is the word and Evie is hotness in the overexposed and underaged flesh. As Tracy takes a bus through the valley of billboards in downtown LA, fashion, beauty and sex short-circuit with glamour, envy and desire. Thirteen is a world where you are made by your accessories: piercing rings, thongs, boys, girls, cliques. One’s either hot or not.
Tracy, the daughter of an absentee father and a mother in recovery, seems to already have too many abandonment issues. She needs to be in with Evie’s in crowd even if it means stealing, just so she may go shopping with them.
But soon we find out that even Evie’s life isn’t so hot. She lives with Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger, Signs & Wonders), an actress-model-bartender who looks faded and frayed by what seems to be alcoholism — especially when compared to her framed head shots on her wall. Brooke doesn’t seem to care much whether Evie stays or goes and eventually Evie becomes a member of Tracy’s family — at least for a while.
The girls share Tracy’s bedroom, groom and preen each other (in their adolescent world — as in the media — looks are everything) and Evie introduces Tracy to piercings, hot black boys, kissing, sex and drugs.
Hardwicke’s camera does more than follow Tracy’s seesawing life like a documentarian from exhilarating rides to horrifying slides. Hardwicke gets us high with Tracy in blurs and a rush of edits. The hue, tint and contrast of her grainy film change with Tracy’s moods.
Hardwicke also captures performances that are as naturalistic and vivid as her camera technique. All are effective, but Hunter is especially notable. She brings Melanie to life with a bottomless well of love and tenderness, troubled with the stresses of single motherhood and domestic dysfunction.
And it’s love — dysfunctional as it may be — that subtly saturates Thirteen’s plot. It surfaces when Melanie offers to give Tracy’s hair “honey blonde entertainment streaks,” when Evie calls Melanie “Mom” and when Melanie tells the girls, “Goodnight, my little babies.” It’s as bare as Melanie when her scruffy, recovering crack-addict boyfriend, Brady (Jeremy Sisto), undresses her so she can shower.
With Thirteen, Hardwicke, Reed and their cast cinematically come of age.
Showing exclusively at the Uptown Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward, Birmingham. Call 248-644-FILM.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].