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Director: Catherine Hardwicke.
Writers: Catherine Hardwicke, Nikki Reed

Two young girls sit on a bed. Literally numbed by drugs, each dares the other to strike her, harder and harder.

They draw blood.

They laugh.

Co-authored by a teenage girl (who also plays one of the film's principals) and loosely based on her own troubled life at 13, this 2003 film has won awards and created a fair bit of controversy. I found the movie neither as good nor as bad as its strongest supporters and harshest critics claim. And despite its problematic nature, I found it gave me a few things to consider afterwards.

The film tells the tale of young Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), an intelligent but naive girl who courts popular, troubled Evie (Nikki Reed) and wins her over after stealing a woman's purse and splitting the score. The film becomes a kind of coked-up after-school special, in which the two teens descend into hard drug abuse, theft, sexual experimentation, and self-mutilation, all before failing the seventh grade.

Young Nikki Reed, whose real life (partially) inspired the film, chose to play Evie, the bad influence, rather than Tracy; she says she has already lived that life once. Holly Hunter turns in an impressive performance as Tracy's mother, a recovering alcoholic who tries perhaps too hard to be a pal to her children and her own troubled circle of acquaintances. Deborah Unger plays Evie's willfully blinded guardian with conviction; even at the end, she does not truly grasp what has happened to her manipulative ward.

Thirteen proves less exploitative than 1995's Kids (the film to which it is most often compared). While many of its scenes shock, serious sexual activity occurs off-camera. The film also provides a context and a contrast which Kids lacks. We see something of the homelife these girls lead, and we also see, by contrast, the more typical adolescents in their seventh-grade class. Unlike Kids, Thirteen does not try to pass off its principals' wild lives as average contemporary teen behaviour. These girls are atypical; these girls have gone over an edge.

Hand-held digital cameras give the entire film a grainy, documentary quality, but the sense of reality sometimes seems forced. Wood and Reed go over the top-- though 13 often seems that way, even for more typical teenagers. The actress's actual young ages (14, 15) give the film a disturbing power it would otherwise have lacked and, overall, both girls do an excellent job. Nikki Reed, in particular, is convincing and disturbing.

More serious problems present themselves in the execution of this film. Individual stories have their own idiosyncracies, but when those particulars appear onscreen, they may not play as the filmmakers intended.

I'm fairly certain the film intended to present the various aspects of their rebellion as they might happen. The result, however, is that the film blends together all forms of teen rebellion, without any sense of distinction. We're left with the impression that navel piercing, tongue piercing, lesbic "practice" kissing, hard drugs, oral sex in middle school, and theft are all pretty much equally dangerous.

The film also has a disturbing, if likely unintended, racial subtext. The boys with whom lily-white Evie and Tracy have sex are nearly all Black. This may simply be a reflection of the particulars of Reed's Los Angeles life, but I rather wish they had handled this particular with greater care. I certainly hope that "dating Black" wasn't supposed to be yet another one of the unspeakable dangers into which the film's white adolescent girls are tumbling. The only significant Caucasian with whom they become involved is a young man who, after a few kisses, dismisses them as "jailbait".

Finally, the film suggests our culture's obsession with beauty plays a negative role in the lives of these girls. Tracy, after all, wins Evie's attention by showing off her looks, Evie's mother undergoes plastic surgery, and a "Truth is beauty" advertisement appears in the background at significant moments. Yet the film sold itself with actors who are exceptionally beautiful, a fact which arguably weakens the implied criticism. (at Sundance, Hardwicke had to remind the men in the crowd that Reed was underage).

Thirteen, then, is far from a perfect film, but it has many fine, if harrowing, moments, and deserves an audience. I suspect we shall see more of its stars and creators in the future.

Thirteen won Best Director at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.