Considering the somewhat familiar territory that Catherine Hardwicke’s first movie “Thirteen” covers, it is no small feat that she took home the Directing Award at this year’s Sundance film festival. After seeing the film, I can see why.
Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed play two thirteen year-old (go figure!) girls in Los Angeles going through their “I hate everyone” phase. And, you know what? It’s scary to think that at one time I was like this too. I hope, for my parents’ sake, that it didn’t last long.
The first half hour of the movie comes dangerously close to becoming an ABC After-School Special, as Wood’s mild-mannered teen meets Reed’s “bad girl” and starts dressing like Pink and acting like Scott Weiland. Three things really elevate the material, and keep the movie from sinking into a seventh grade teacher’s lesson plan.
The actresses seem to have firsthand experience with the material. I’ve read that Reed wrote the story with Hardwicke partially based on her own life, and it shows. The subtleties of today’s youth culture, where everyone seems to be growing up way too fast, are spot-on. It never feels like there’s a false moment between these actresses. Sometimes I questioned their motivations, but that’s what the entire story is about. The feelings these girls experience at that age is not meant to be understood, but the way it is portrayed in “Thirteen” is completely believable. And it isn’t shown from a “concerned parent” point-of-view.
This is also a key to the film’s appeal. The director has lots of experience as a production designer on high-profile movies like “Three Kings” and “Vanilla Sky.” She shows that she is a master visual storyteller in “Thirteen.”
Hardwicke is constantly putting the audience in the girls’ point-of-view, and it helps to experience things with the characters. The camera movement always matches the mood of the scene. The bright and saturated colors in the drug-using scenes are intoxicating, and add an authenticity you won’t find often. She finds ways to convey the girls’ desperateness to belong without literally having a character break down and scream “I’m so lost!”
And finally, Holly Hunter is the glue that holds this whole picture together. She plays the “concerned mom” without making us feel like she is just the concerned mom. Besides raising two kids by herself, she has a boyfriend who is in and out of rehab. Her dinky hairdressing business is run out of her house, and it sometimes feels like a boarding room for troubled friends. As her relationship with Wood deteriorates, Hunter plays the complexities that her neo-hippie mom goes through very inwardly. She’s no stereotype, but rather, a mom whose willingness to trust her child is only barely eclipsed by her inability to figure out what’s wrong with her.
I can’t help it, because I’m an Oscar nut, but I hope Hunter is remembered for this performance, come February.
“Thirteen” concentrates more on Wood and Hunter’s characters, so Reed’s rebellious teen is an incomplete slate. But she’s not just bad for shock value, there’s something deeper going on. Maybe that’s the whole point of the film. Not every action can be easily explained away. If it could, there would be a textbook on how to raise kids. Actually, there probably is one. And it probably sucks ass.
They should see “Thirteen” instead.