Scare Tactics 

Thirteen: It's not easy being teen.

Helmed by first-time director Catherine Hardwicke, who co-wrote it with co-star and real-life 13-year-old Nikki Reed, the Sundance fave Thirteen has benefited from some pretty undeserving media hype -- sober, dutiful approval that seems to come from the conclusion that if it is actually written by an actual 13-year-old (Reed is now 15), then it must be realistic.

But as appealing as Thirteen's back-story may be, the result is basically an artfully directed after-school special, as much a scare film as Reefer Madness, if not quite as entertaining. The difference, of course, is where films like Madness were aimed at teens themselves, the group meant to be frightened by Thirteen is parents (or potential parents), who may be inspired to ransack their child's room or invest in some pop-psychology best-sellers.

Thirteen opens with two girls --bony, blond Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) and curvaceous, brunette Evie (Reed) --doing whip-its and giggling as they punch each other in the face. The scene ends with wild-eyed, bleeding Tracy staring devilishly out of the screen at the cowering adults in the theater, an image of child-as-object-of-parental-horror equal to, if less considered than, the ones that haunt John Cassavetes' domesticity-fleeing Husbands.

If that image weren't bad enough, the film leaps back four months to show an angelic, regular-kid Tracy, walking her dog while wearing plain-Jane T-shirt and jeans and smiley-face sneakers, and then shows how things fall apart.

Not a girl but not yet a woman, Tracy gets a rude introduction to teendom during her first day at middle school, when she and her sweet, nerdy friends are ignored by boys (including Tracy's big brother) busy salivating over junior sexpot Evie (who "grew up over the summer," as one boy observes). Evie and her friends flaunt low-cut designer jeans and skimpy tops that reveal belly-button piercings; chat on cell phones; walk in confident, intimidating phalanxes; and seem to know far more about sex than any seventh-grader has a right to.

Seeing the two social options before her, the pretty Tracy trades up, gently abandoning her old friends and transforming herself --with much awkwardness and a little law-breaking -- into a creature that meets Evie's approval. Evie, a parentless girl who lives with a model/actress/bartender guardian (Deborah Kara Unger) who lets her drink beer from the fridge, is as intrigued by Tracy's loving, if messy, homelife as Tracy is by Evie's bad-girl lifestyle, and soon the girls are inseparable. The too-predictably drawn Evie is part Eddie Haskell and part The Bad Seed, worming her way into Tracy's family life by courting Tracy's too-eager-to-please mom (Holly Hunter) and leading Tracy down a path that includes drugs (using and selling), alcohol, shoplifting, sex, etc.

The film's early scenes are its best -- the way it catalogs the accessories of teen hipness and tracks the desperate steps Tracy takes to find acceptance, particularly a scene in which the two girls confront each other and the camera zooms back and forth, highlighting the random accoutrements that demarcate the lines of an adolescent caste system. But while the pain of Tracy's tortured immersion into teendom feels real, the film soon descends into the abyss with no-stone-unturned predictability.

Who's to blame for this social crisis? There's plenty to go around in this cautionary tale: our sex-obsessed popular culture; an advertising industry that bombards us with images promoting materialism; an educational system too ready to give in to these base values (there's one subtle reference to school projects about J.Lo and Usher); parents who are either absent (Evie's), distracted (Tracy's dad), too busy dealing with their own problems (Tracy's mom -- a recovering alcoholic dating a recovering drug addict), too permissive (Evie's guardian), or too eager to be their child's buddy rather than a strong authority figure (Tracy's mom again). In other words, any parent seeing this film is liable to feel helpless in the face of overwhelming forces and find something that they're doing wrong.

Thirteen is certainly harrowing (the expert handheld camera, which peers over shoulders and darts around corners, might be the best thing about the film), but it seemed too boilerplate to me. Like those Larry Clark flicks (Kids, Bully), it advertises itself as a generational portrait, but its provocations and titillations are more than a little suspect. Tracy is presented as an Everygirl but doesn't seem to be much of a stand-in for every girl: The case here is extreme, though not unrealistic. Ultimately, I found myself aching for something less overdetermined, for the film to veer off into the lives of the friends Tracy leaves behind, whose own transition into teendom may be less sensational but surely no less painful, real, or relevant.

-- Chris Herrington

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