Within minutes of Thirteen, Tracy Frieland (Evan Rachel Wood of TV's Once and Again), the frisky, coltish protagonist, has moved away from being a shy, straight-A junior high student, and a placid, cooperative babysitter. She's suddenly all over the place, like lots of high-strung adolescents, blowing hot and cold without much need of motivation, annoyed with her straight-laced brother, petulant with her mother, bored and distracted at school, and snobby with her square, childish, female friends. Still, she's not far off the "nice girl" track: blonde, blue-eyed, and thin, an intelligent, middle-class LA girl who, calmed down a bit, would be set for a popular, well-adjusted life.
But then, she meets, and is dazzled by, Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed), a dark-haired goth girl with a cross about her neck and a brazen, devilish, anything-goes amorality. Evie, all agree, is the coolest, sexiest thing in the seventh grade, and Tracy is smitten. She's honored that Evie has picked her out of the gawky crowd as co-conspirator. Soon, Tracy and Evie are everywhere together, everywhere where they shouldn't be. They shoplift, they take harmful drugs, they sneak out to the park with the wild boys. Tracy turns snotty and hateful to her mother and brother. And Evie more or less moves into Tracy's house, feeding Tracy's gullible, liberal mother with sociopathic stories about how she was sexually abused by various and rotten relatives.
Evie (Eve?) is a bad seed all the way. Yet how did Tracy get so very, very bad? As her mystified father asks at one point, "What is the problem? Just tell me, what is the problem? In a nutshell."
The most obvious virtue of Thirteen, directed and co-written by Catherine Hardwicke, a former production designer, is that Tracy's craven, frightening new life can't be explained in sociological terms. This is no simplistic TV movie of the week. Tracy's wildly out of control, and there's no remedy to how to stop it, and no "if only" for next time. How much clout can a parent have when in competition with a charismatic peer like Evie?
Surely, fathers and mothers in the movie audience will be aghast that such could happen to their own fine brood. That's what Thirteen insinuates: that any American family is vulnerable, no matter how warm and well-meaning, to having a child bewitched. (It's almost like the threat of Communism in the 1950s.)
Am I being too pessimistic? Perhaps it does matter a bit that Tracy is the shaken child of divorce, that her father, with whom she doesn't live, has little time for her, that her mother, with whom she does reside, is a recovering alcoholic with a boyfriend, Brady (Jeremy Sisto) in rehab. But in the latter case, Brady is a rather nice guy, and Tracy's mom, Melanie (a passionate, complex performance by Holly Hunter), loves her daughter deeply. The alienation is more subtle: Melanie is perhaps too much a big sister pal to Tracy instead of an authority figure. Except for her long, unkempt, hippie hair, she looks much like her daughter, down to the hugger jeans and a hint of bare midriff. And she has trouble (as do so many caring modern parents) with laying down the law. When Tracy is flagrantly rude to her, Melanie gets personally hurt instead of punishing her daughter. Instead of grounding Tracy, or insisting on some junior-high equivalent of "time out."
But this is what's so troubling: Melanie's mistakes as a mom are very minor ones. In no way, do they open the door for Tracy's dramatic slide into delinquency and promiscuity, or for Tracy to physically attack her brother, and to speak meanly to Melanie's sensitive boyfriend: "Don't tell me what to do, you fuckin' cokehead. You are such a loser!" There's more: as Tracy transforms, she is also increasingly filled with self-loathing, slashing her wrist with scissors, asking Evie to slap her hard in the face. Tracy also gets a belly-button ring and a tongue ring, and the painful way they are installed also feeds her masochism.
Can Thirteen be accused of sensationalism? I think there's a bit of Kids and Bully popping out, especially in the second half of the movie, in which Tracy's degradation keeps escalating scene onto scene. There's too much snorting coke and dressing super-trashy, and there's definitely a gratuitous threesome scene in which the randy girls sexually attack a college-age guy in his home, until he throws them off him because they are "jailbait." And Thirteen comes, I think, dangerously close to racism, in that all the "bad" crowd with which Tracy and Evie cavort, and which is seen as a salacious bunch, are African-American kids.
Ultimately, Kids and Bully are shameless, fraudulent tabloid works of Larry Clark, a dirty old director. Most of Thirteen comes from a far more genuine place, and many of the scenes in which Tracy and Evie frantically leap about catch the kinetic spirit of early teen life. It's more than a nice bit of publicity that the second screenwriter of Thirteen is Nikki Reed, who plays Evie. So much of the dialogue is just right, and credit must be given to the precocious Reed for putting to paper what kids her age are actually thinking and saying. Awesome!