Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 17, 2003
Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, and Holly Hunter. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed. Rated R.
What a Girl Wants

Thirteen is bad luck, but Evan Rachel Wood is so good.


Lots of movies play like they were written by 14-year-old girls. Hereís a movie that actually was written by one, namely Nikki Reed. She was a girl going through a bad patch when Catherine Hardwicke, a film production designer who had dated Reedís father, offered to help her write her way out of it. Their collaboration turned into a script, and then into Thirteen, directed by Hardwicke and co-starring Reed. Various movie critics have praised this film as a fundamentally more truthful portrayal of contemporary girlhood than, say, The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Well, it isnít. It certainly shows another side of things, but itís just as limited in its viewpoint (not to mention its storytelling). Even though it features an Oscar-worthy lead performance, itís depressing to watch, much more because of its limitations than its subject matter.

That subject is a seething ball of resentment named Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), growing up in an unfashionable part of southern California. She has quite a bit to resent, like her clueless jerk of a dad (D.W. Moffett) who abandoned the family, her mom (Holly Hunter) who can barely keep herself together, and the boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto) that her mom picked up in rehab. So when sheís encouraged to act out by Evie Zamora (Reed), her new best friend and one of the cool girls at school, Tracyís only too receptive. She does basically everything you donít want your 13-year-old daughter to do, in an all-out effort to inflict maximum pain on everyone around her. Her personalityís enough to peel the paint off the walls and kill all the plants. When the boyfriend tries to discipline her, she just looks him in the eye, calls him a cokehead, and walks away while audibly muttering ďYouíre such a goddamn loser.Ē

In short order and under Evieís guidance, Tracy takes up smoking, drinking, shoplifting, self-mutilation, anorexia, getting high, and having sex with black guys. No wonder sheís failing seventh grade. Just think, any one of these activities would qualify as a crisis, and sheís got them all on her schedule. (Even in far subtler movies such as Traffic and Requiem for a Dream, white girls in trouble always have sex with black guys. Not Latino guys. Not Asian guys. Not black women. Yeah, this film is racist, playing on a white audienceís horror of this specific kind of interracial sex, but thatís a minor problem compared to the movieís other shortcomings.)

Iím being snarky, but I have a good reason ó I donít believe this story, at least not the way this movie presents it. The filmmakers claim that this is based on Reedís life, and Iím sure she really lived through some of this story, just as Iím sure that there really are 13-year-old girls who are as bad off as Tracy. But Iím also sure that Reed, being a kid and having a kidís instinctive knack for saying what grown-ups want to hear, did some serious embellishing when it came to recounting her own bad-girl antics. Which is fine, this being fiction. However, this movieís too eager to shock us, and it winds up being alarmist rather than cautionary.

The movie plays like a litany of teen (or, in this case, pre-teen) misbehavior, mostly because itís so unstructured. The lack of structure isnít necessarily a bad thing ó this girlís life isnít going to assume the dimensions of a three-act drama, and the movie assumes a veneer of realism by not pretending that it does. The problem, though, is that the great majority of the scenes have exactly the same shape and tone as the others. Thatís monotonous. Everything that happens is given the same amount of dramatic weight, which all too often tips the film into the territory of hysteria. Tracyís mom is just as upset over Tracyís pierced tongue as she is about the shoplifting and drugs. Come on. Hardwicke should have brought an adultís perspective to this material, but she fails mightily.

The way Tracy and Evieís friendship blossoms and goes bad like a love affair is fairly well done. So is the reality of the lower-middle-class home depicted here. Still, the movie would be unredeemable if Evan Rachel Wood didnít throw herself so fearlessly into the part. A slim actress with an attractive face and voice, she nevertheless turns in a feral performance here. Everything about Tracy is charged with electricity ó her intelligence, her girlish enthusiasm at first gaining access to Evieís circle, her rage at the flawed people around her, and her discovery of her own destructive power. Holly Hunter does fine work as Tracyís helpless mom, and yet this great actress gets almost obliterated by the force of the 15-year-old starís magnetism. The cathartic final scene on a kitchen floor is a truly scary piece of work. Evan Rachel Wood gives the movie an authenticity that it doesnít deserve, and because of her, Thirteen is a rare creature ó a bad movie that you need to see anyway.

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