Coming-of-age films are generally plagued by feelings of familiarity, given the rather restricting nature of the subject matter. Thirteen
, the directing debut of production designer Catherine Hardwicke (Three Kings, Vanilla Sky) doesn't truly escape this genre pitfall, but thanks to well-written, complex characters, effective direction, and emotionally convincing performances, it achieves more than one might expect. The story of a thirteen year old girl's descent into a hellish world of drugs, sex, shoplifting and pain, Thirteen
is a remarkable film that deserves praise for some considerable achievements.
Much of the film's believability comes from the insigthful screenplay, written by director Hardwicke and 13-year-old Nikki Reed (who also stars as Evie). Rather than resorting to stereotypical situations and cliché characters, the two screenwriters take the time to illustrate Tracey's downfall convincingly, and to surround her with believable and three-dimensional characters.
Indeed, the film's greatest strength lies in the depth of its characters, and in the fascinating dynamics it establishes between them. The film centers around Tracey Freeland (Evan Rachel Wood), a good-natured thirteen-year-old envious of the attention and popularity of another girl, Evie (Nikki Reed). She quickly changes her image and befriends Evie, and suddenly finds herself drawn into an adult world of smoking, stealing, doing drugs, and spiraling wildly out of control. Her transformation scares her mother, Mel (Holly Hunter), who is herself ill equipped to handle the situation.
Each of the characters is finely drawn. Tracey is specific and convincing, a good-natured child drawn into a world entirely beyond her grasp, and one senses that her nightmarish descent, even at its most euphoric, is accompanied by an awareness of the hurt she's causing to herself and to those around her. And as well as the character is written, one must give considerable credit to the talented Evan Rachel Wood for bringing it to life. It's a terrific performance; sharp, complex, and believable, and it is to the young actress' considerable credit that she's able to elicit empathy and compassion from the audience even during Tracey's most selfish and destructive moments.
Evie, the negative influence that disrupts Tracey's life, might not elicit as much empathy, but she is just as complex. Rather than drawing her as a stereotype, Hardwicke and Reed give her depth. Living with a careless, self-absorbed mother and having suffered abuse early in her childhood, Evie is a damaged child, living in mid-air. One senses a need in her attachment to Tracey's mother, and her tearful reaction at the latter's rejection adds layers to her character. Nikki Reed, the film's co-writer, plays the character as selfish and cunning, but uses key scenes to suggest the layers beneath; it's an impressive turn that holds its own to Rachel Wood's.
The emotional triumverate of Thirteen
is completed by Mel, Tracey's mother, and once again, the film surprises. A lesser film would have drawn the parent figure as a perfect figure struggling to save the child from a different world; Hardwicke and Reed write her as a part of that world. To a certain extent, Mel influences (and even accepts) Tracey's transformation, and when things finally go too far, she acts much too slowly, allowing her daughter to sink tragically deep before finally deciding to pull her out. Holly Hunter, a talented actress, plays Mel intelligently, creating a character that is good-intentioned, but on which at least part of the blame can be attributed to.
These three performance form the narrative and thematic crux of the film, and most of the film's potency comes from them. However, credit must also be given to Ms. Hardwicke for orchestrating and directing the film with flair and energy. Her hand is deft, her palette fast-paced and brilliant, and yet she avoids the pitfalls of over-stylizing; impressively, her technique almost always serves the story, a quality that must be commended. As it stands, Hardwicke's direction, along with the excellent performances, energize the familiar nature of the story, making it both fascinating and convincing.
Thanks to the vigor of Hardwicke's direction, Thirteen
is never any less than compelling. That being said, it's not necessarily an uplifting film.
Indeed, the quality of the film makes for an experience that is often uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful. For one, the film's dynamics center around rage, hurt, dissapointment, fear, and betrayal; emotions that when left to stand on their own, rarely make for an entertaining experience. For another, the depths to which the characters plummet are often difficult to watch, and the intimacy and realism of the performances only serves to add to this characteristic.
However, one should not interpret these comments purely as criticism, as this is not a film that should be watched for standard entertainment. Rather, Thirteen
is a cautionary tale whose toilsome, painful moments make the characters within more compelling, and the emotions evoked more effective.
The caliber of the performances, the intelligence of the screenwriting, and the energy of the direction elevate Thirteen
above the usual trappings of its genre, and serve to make a film that is both convincing and provocative. It's well worth seeing.