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ISSUE 117 VOL 1 PUBLISHED 9/19/2003

Critic's Corner

By Molly Bayrd
Variety Editor

Friday, September 19, 2003

Between calls on his ever-ringing cell phone, a father stares at his daughter, who sits stewing quietly in a cesspool of teenage rage and frustration. When the young girl refuses to respond to his half-cocked attempts to ease her mind, the father – long divorced from the girl’s mother – looks over at his son and simply demands, “What is the problem? Can you just tell me what the problem is, in a nutshell?” The recently-released film “Thirteen” is a testament to the fact that no teenage ailment can be easily defined or easily remedied.

“Thirteen” is an exhaustingly raw film that wholly captures the gritty, albeit extreme, realities of junior high school. All the elements of teenage life – peer pressure, cliques, and the grotesque struggle for popularity – are finely depicted through jarring cinematography, powerful imagery (keep your eyes peeled for the “Beauty is Truth” poster) and eerily realistic dialogue. The entire film appears as though it was shot through a grainy blue lens, which parallels the lack of clarity with which lead character Tracy (Rachel Evan Wood) approaches her vulnerable teenage years.

Popular, uninhibited Evie (Nikki Reed, who also co-wrote the screenplay) finagles her way into Tracy’s life after Tracy expresses her interest in the pretty Latina seventh grader. Once Tracy has completed her “initiation” into Evie’s clique – by stealing a woman’s wallet – she becomes entangled in an ever-tightening vice of teenage peer pressure. It is not long before Evie has coerced her susceptible new friend into doing drugs, having sex, and dressing in provocative clothing.

Evie’s diabolical intrigues go deeper than Tracy’s unassuming family suspects. The sweetly smooth teenager affects a fictional past riddled with child abuse and despair, all in the hopes of scoring a host to facilitate her material and emotional needs. Her affability and manipulative tactics easily sway both Tracy and her eager-to-please mother (Academy Award nominee Holly Hunter) into the near-adoption of the troubled teen.

Evie’s schemes border on what most suburban teenagers would call unbelievable. What brings this particular aspect of “Thirteen” back to plausibility is Tracy’s wholehearted willingness to believe Evie and embrace her nefarious exploits with genuine, youthful fervor. Tracy’s capacity for faith and forgiveness is what sets her, and most teenagers, apart from the rest of the world. Such teenage innocence – and the quickness with which it can dissipate – is a concept that director Catherine Hardwicke seems keen to reemphasize throughout “Thirteen.”

In the midst of Evie and Tracy’s growing interest in one another is the fading union between Tracy and her mother. As she desperately attempts to cling onto the quickly-dissolving bond with her youngest child, Tracy’s mother struggles to overcome the alcohol abuse of her past as well as a problematic relationship with her boyfriend, an ex-junkie who has recently moved back in with her.

Holly Hunter’s performance as Tracy’s unsteady mother is one of the most emotionally involved and thoroughly powerful matriarchal portrayals that cinema has seen in recent years. Her unabashed love for and frustration with her daughter reveals the utterly unequivocal relationship that only a mother and daughter can share. The film seems to imply that Tracy will survive because she has her family; a much darker future may await children like Evie, who have no familial love to back them in their pursuits.

“Thirteen” confirms one very sad truth about adolescence: it only takes one day – or one irresponsible gesture – to turn a well-mannered youth into a drug-snorting, careless creature. The intensity with which Tracy’s dissolution progressed left me feeling as though I’d aged forty years and was in dire need of a lengthy nap – all this within ninety minutes! “Thirteen” offers, with sheer realism and relatability, a conceptual glance at a young girl’s early teenage years. While watching this film, it is likely that viewers will easily recall the burdens they carried as teenagers...and shudder.

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