Monday, September 29, 2003

Movie Review: Thirteen

**MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING** If you haven't seen this movie, I will be discussing it in thorough detail that will spoil it for you. You have been warned! If you want to skip ahead to the next post, click here.

Thirteen is a new movie, still playing in theaters, that is getting a lot of buzz for its "honest and brutal" portrayal of early teens today. I disagree, though it's a powerful if flawed movie. One thing is clear, though; it shows that Evan Rachel Wood is an actress to watch, one who will undoubtedly become one of the top ranking American actresses. She is that good.

I first saw her on the ABC show "Once and Again," about two divorced families that come together. It was by the same group that did "Thirtysomething," and shared a lot of the same deep examination of that show. But "Once" had strong and flawed characters and wasn't afraid to let them do stupid things, which made it very, very good. It also had one of the best casts ever assembled. Wood played the pre-teen daughter of Bill Campbell. Her character developed bulimia as a result of all the stress. But the real kicker was her character's slow realisation, late in the last season, that she was a lesbian. I still don't know why conservative Christians didn't leap all over this, but they didn't. The scene where she slowly, over the silent course of five or ten minutes, realised her deep attraction to another girl, and how she acted on it, was some of the most subtle, stunning and moving acting I have ever seen. And it was by a girl who was maybe all of twelve at the time. It was then I knew this was an actress to watch.

So that's why I wanted to see Thirteen. Well, that and Holly Hunter, who I'm sad to say is not looking all that good these days. She's still a kick-ass actress, but her wiry, taut body and her wrinkled, sun-blasted skin makes her look like a hard-scrabble Appalachian back-country girl. Ewww.

Wood plays Hunter's daughter, Tracy, who is just now entering middle school. She finds that some of her peers have blossomed over the summer and the boys are reacting. She's on the vulnerable cusp of growing up. She's feeling alienated and awkward, out of control. It doesn't help that her mother is divorced and pretty flawed herself, being a slipping recovering alcoholic with a bad choice in men. The movie shows us how this stew is ripe for stirring.

Enter Evie (Nikki Reed, who is also co-credited with the script), the stirrer. Evie is more mature physically, but years ahead of her age, being into petty theft, casual sex, drug use, piercing and tattoos, and emotional manipulation of the highest order. Evie doesn't have a mother, but her "guardian" is a real mess, too absorbed in her own bad life and completely unaware of Evie's activities. Over the course of the film, we'll come to see that Evie is where Tracy is headed and that Evie is the force pulling her along.

Evie comes into Tracy's life like a vampire. She latches on and bleeds everyone dry. Evie flatters Tracy's mom, Melanie, constantly but in an Eddie Haskell kind of way. She throws around the phrase "I love you" in a way that shows you she has learned to use it as a tool, but has no real understanding of it. "Love" seems more about guilt and clinging when she says it. When Evie sees how easy it is to invade this family, and how she can use them to her advantage, she tries to finagle a change of guardianship.

We see Tracy change into the prototypical teenage parents' nightmare. Tracy is constantly looking to Evie throughout the course of the movie for cues on how to act, but as she's still inexperienced, she doesn't understand what she's getting in to. She keeps skirting the edges of true disaster, which is a flaw of the movie, a kind of protective cowardice if you will. When the end is reached, Evie turns on Tracy, setting her up for the fall but acting the whole time as though they are still best friends. Evie is covering every angle; Tracy is devastated.

I have to say that this movie was another of the cinematic experiences I've been having in recent years where critics just rave about a movie, but I say "Eh." The same thing happened with Punch Drunk Love. I can see how the me of just a decade ago would have agreed with the critics, but now I see the tricks the film makers used, and the slightly exploitative nature of the subject matter, and realise this is just critic bait.

There were two major problems for me. First, was the hand-held twitchy camera work. It just makes me slightly nauseated and a bit pissed, not alienated as they assume. I take it as a sign that the director didn't completely trust her material and felt the need to jazz it up. Same goes for a lot of editing tricks -- quick cuts, and using multiple takes of the same scene rapidly intercut to make time stutter. Just clutter.

Another was the schematic nature of the story. I've read some on the effects on teens of being raised post-divorce by single moms, and this film seemed to hit every step and problem of the process of badly handling it. It seemed to click right along, which contributed to the feeling that this movie seemed to take place within a week, and not over many months. This also gave a freight-train sensibility to Tracy's destiny. But where they hit most every nail pretty hard and clear, they left the issue of Tracy "cutting" herself a bit out there. "Cutting" is usually interpreted as a teen trying to take control somewhere in their life, using the pain as an anchor. But this was shown as clearly predating her movie-shown downslide, so I may have missed something.

Lastly, was the ending. There's the confrontation scene, which goes badly for Tracy. I thought Evie's guardian being the kind of parent who blindly and reflexively defends her child, regardless of the facts or truth, was stunning and hilarious. It left Tracy out in the cold and even threw Melanie.

But then Mel the mom tries to embrace her crushed daughter and I found that scene distinctly creepy. Hunter kept pawing and clutching and kissing Wood as she begged Mel to be left alone. It came off as clingy somehow and vaguely disturbing. I have to admit to great discomfort watching them. Not in any erotic way, but in the sense of a very bad acting choice.

Then, strangely, they lie together in Tracy's bed, like a withdrawal watch over a heroin addict almost. The whole day and night passes in montage until we see Tracy rise from the bed. The movie cuts to a blurry shot of Tracy twirling around on a child's round-and-round (I thought those things were banned these days.), looking a few years older, until she tips her head back and screams. Huh? Is Tracy past the worst now, and salvageable, or is this her cry for help? Or a cry of frustration? You're left unsettled and confused, but not in the good way.

It was interesting how all the adults in this film were bad people. I doubt any of them would see themselves that way, but all were selfish. Every one put their own needs and wants ahead of the children's. Every one had a bit of self-righteousness in their view of themselves, but all were constantly making bad choices for lame reasons. It's a commentary on today's parents, but I wonder how many will see it correctly.

I noticed several times in the movie that an inferior grain stock was used. Whether this was intentional, accidental or what I don't know. It didn't seem to be an artistic choice as it appeared randomly.

The soundtrack for this album was phenomenal. It was a mix of rap/rock, rap, nu-metal, grrl-rock and some alt that I really enjoyed. I may have to look for it in the stores.

I was troubled by a few other things, too. For one, most of the girls in the movie are pretty clearly white. Evan Rachel Wood was by far the palest and thinnest of the girls in the movie, Hollywood lookism at its worst. But the only guys they interact with, outside of Tracy's brother, seem Hispanic and black, or "black-acting" scruffy whites. There seemed to be a deliberate effort on the part of the director to show PC multiculturalism, but it felt wrong, forced and not natural. Kids are certainly friendly across color lines, moreso today than ever before, but this was way past anything I've seen in real life. Even today, kids still tend to stick "with their own." That part of the movie rang badly false.

While the movie did try to minimise the "teen porn" aspects of having two thirteen year old girls go bad, there was a scene involving a neighbor that cut it close. The neighbor finally put an end to it, but not before we saw maybe a bit too much of what might have happened. There were some implied sexual elements, but they were rather well handled. One scene, meant to imply a blowjob, managed to do so with only a pulled zipper and a camera pan. You knew exactly what was about to happen, but not because of anything directly shown. Nicely done. Another scene of Wood bending over a counter, with her thong hanging out of her low-cut jeans, and the boys (including her brother!) barking all over her until they realise who she is, was also great.

My recommendation? Go see it if you want to see a young actress astonish you. Even Rachel Wood might be her generation's Grace Kelly. Her range and power are unbelievable, already on a par with any adult you can name. You wonder where someone so young can pull all this from. She's already a beauty, although as I noted earlier, she's waaaaaaaaaaay to thin. She is going to be a star.

Otherwise, this movie is as I said earlier. Eh. It's a great examination of what divorce and single-motherhood and self-absorbed adults with bad parenting ideas can do to a young girl. It has some great points to make about how children today are swimming in a sea of sexy commercialism. Watch for them. But it's flawed in its execution and that left me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

Wait for the DVD and rent it.

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