When I was 13, just keeping my finger out of my nose was a full-time occupation. Today, a finger is the last thing that goes up a 13-year-old's nose, or so the movie Thirteen would have us believe. A documentary-like look at a girl who, almost overnight, goes from pigtails to tongue-stud, Catherine Hardwicke's debut feature comes at us like a tabloid headline. It's shot in cinema-veritÃ style, the camera buzzing around like a fly. And the dialogue consists of screaming, shouting, shrieking, squealing ' all the sounds that make the average teenager such a joy to be around. Except this is and isn't the average teenager. As played by Evan Rachel Wood, who did such beautiful work on ABC's "Once and Again," Tracy is that old teen-movie staple, the good girl gone bad. Mothers: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Or stifle a yawn, because girls have been doing this kind of thing at least since my own sister turned 16. But that's the difference, right? Today, 13 is the new 16. When Tracy falls under the sway of Evie (Nikki Reed), the Bitch-Goddess of Portola Middle School, she has a lot of catching up to do. There's a whole new wardrobe to put together, for starters ' various piercings, midriff-baring tops, hip-hugging bottoms, with thong-bikini straps latticing across the upper pelvic regions, front and back. There are also new drugs to take, new shops to lift, new boys to kick it with. At first, it's as if Tracy were Cinderella, magically transformed by a wave of Evie's wand. But maybe Evie's less like a fairy godmother and more like a drug, one that Tracy needs higher and higher doses of just to maintain her high. Will Tracy ever get Evie off her back?
Hardwicke, who has an impressive rÃsumÃ as a production designer, nails this lower-middle-class milieu to the wall; just deciphering Tracy's bedroom could keep anthropologists busy for years. And the script, for all its screaming and shouting, has the ring of truth, perhaps because Hardwicke co-wrote it with Reed, who was 13 at the time. It's based on Reed's own experiences as a good girl gone bad, but you can see why Hardwicke had her switch roles: She's got bad girl written all over her. Evie is a complicated character ' slutty, sneaky, a liar but also capable of true feelings, at least for a few minutes or so. And although Reed isn't quite enough of an actress to put those lies over, she has the seductive power of her Garden of Eden namesake. Even Tracy's mom, Mel (Holly Hunter), takes a bite out of Evie's apple.
As a single mother who tries not to miss an AA meeting, lest her whole life fall apart, Hunter is in her full-steam-ahead mode. Though a little haggard, she looks terrific, her hair doing a feathered, Farah Fawcett thing, her body hardened into pure muscle. Which may be one of the things that drove Tracy over the edge: Mel looks like her sexy older sister. (Tracy's 13 going on 21, Mel's 33 going on 21.) Another thing that may have driven Tracy over the edge: her father, who's started a new family in a better neighborhood and, between conference calls, wants to know what the problem is "in a nutshell." Another thing: Mel's recovering-addict boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto), who may have done something to Tracy that we're not privy to. And another: Melrose Avenue, which is where Tracy and Evie go to turn themselves into jail bait.
Permissive mother, absent father, peer pressure, consumer culture ' Hardwicke and Reed have rounded up the usual suspects, but, to the movie's credit, none of them seems to explain why Tracy goes from mild child to wild child. Maybe it's hormonal, a biological rite of passage. Or maybe it just is. Either way, explanations are not what Thirteen will be remembered for. It'll be remembered for showing us what it feels like to be a 13-year-old girl in 21st-century America. The movie packs so much girls-gone-wild commotion into its hour and a half that it seems exploitative, like one of those '50s juvenile-delinquent films. But those films didn't have this one's charged atmosphere, its sense of a shot of adrenaline coursing through one's bloodstream. An unlucky age, 13 ' you just have to ride it out, count on things settling down.