A hormonally-charged, occasionally hysterical film, Thirteen is hardly your typical portrait of teenage girlhood. But first-time director Catherine Hardwicke’s film benefits from a tremendous conviction in its own angst, boasting a screenwriting credit for adolescent co-star Nikki Reed’s autobiographical contribution. This, and an utterly mesmerising central performance from Evan Rachel Wood, alongside solid support from Holly Hunter, gives Thirteen a compelling edge that overrides its excess.
Hardwicke sets her stall out immediately, with two young girls high on hallucinogens smacking each other around the face with increasing severity, giggling all the while, unable to feel the pain. A trailer for heavier material to come, comparisons to Larry Clark’s Kids are unavoidable, but this is actually the superior film – its shock tactics channelled into a blistering character study of Tracy (Wood), who despite the rattling pace of the script and the insistent handheld camera completely commands the screen.
A seemingly well-adjusted if slightly geeky teen, Tracy has a penchant for poetry and a close relationship to her mother Mel (Hunter), a hardworking single-parent and recovering alcoholic trying to live beyond her means raising Tracy and her brother Mason (Brady Corbett). But Tracy yearns for more and desperately ingratiates herself with Evie (Reed), the coolest girl in school. Under Evie’s tutelage, she quickly graduates from shoplifting and provocative dressing with piercings, to emotional assault of her mother for her relationship with “loser” boyfriend Brady (Six Feet Under’s Jeremy Sisto), sex, drugs and petty criminality.
Tracy’s swift metamorphosis from good to bad girl is implausible, but the pace gives her disintegration an urgency that permits Hunter to seem permanently dazed, something she conveys with engaging despair. The character of Evie is problematic, particularly as the reasons she gives for her own bad behaviour are largely debunked, leaving the viewer unsure as to Hardwicke’s intentions. Is Evie simply a renegade little sweetheart or has society dressed her up this way? The film offers no answers, leaving little but the harrowing sound and fury of children growing up too fast.
Director's commentary. Making of. Deleted scenes. Easter Egg trailer.
Interview with the director:
Earlier this year Hardwicke won the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Has it been a long emotional journey for you Catherine, bringing this
project to the screen?
Hardwicke: "I've known Nikki since she was five years old because I used to go out with her Dad, and always knew her as a fun little kid. I went out of town on a movie and when I came back I saw this new person walk into the room. She was 12 years old, she looked like a supermodel. I was shocked, there was a new Nikki there. Her world had shrunk, so that the only thing that mattered to her was what three kids at school thought. She wasn't really reading or doing anything else, and was waking up every morning at 4.30 to do two and a half hours of hair and make up before school. And this was a 12 year old! She was very angry with her mother, her father, herself - everyone. I started thinking as a friend that I loved this kid and I loved her brother since they were little kids, and I wanted to help her in whatever way I could."
So what did you do?
Hardwicke: "I wanted to help her get excited about creative stuff instead of destructive stuff, or just being bored all the time. So I taught her to surf, and I took her to museums and art galleries and we did drawings and read Jane Austen. She hated that. Then she said she was interested in acting. We took it very seriously, reading about acting and listening to professional workshops in order to run with this idea that she was excited about. Then I said there was really no great parts for 13 year olds, so we would have to write our own. I thought that maybe this would get her excited about writing and literature. We started to write a teen comedy, but we didn't quite get the funny bits in there. When I started watching all the things going on in her life and her friends' lives and her Mom's life I started seeing all these pressures they were under. And they would open up to me. So we decided to write about the real stuff which was more compelling than anything we could make up. That's kind of how we started."
Does the finished movie strongly reflect the script that you initially read Holly?
Hunter: "Oddly enough it does. The feeling that the movie evokes is exactly what the script evoked as well. It has a sense of emergency, and on the page it had that same kind of urgent, uncensored, very detailed description going on. What I try to do when I act is think a lot, an awful lot, before I show up on the set. And then I try not to think at all when she [Catherine] says action. I really want to just obey my own impulses when the camera's rolling. I think the script has that non-judgmental version of itself that is still intact when you see the movie."
There is a depth and sophistication to the screenplay, isn't there?
Hunter: "I was particularly drawn to the fact that the movie doesn't stand in judgement on any of its characters. Even my character's boyfriend, played by Jeremy Sisto. You kind of like the guy even though he's very damaged and broken and a practising addict. You see that he has an ability and a desire to love, and I think that's true of all the characters. It makes it difficult to categorise these people and stand in judgement on them. And you can more or less see yourself in each of the character's situations."
Has Nikki been changed very much by being in the film?
Hardwicke: "I think it gave her some kind of confidence on one level, that someone listened to her and cared about her and felt she could accomplish something. I think that helped her have some self esteem that she was maybe missing. She's 15 now, in the second year of high school and trying to get a driver's licence, as well as trying to get into college. She also has a steady boyfriend. At 14 or 15 your life changes every minute of every month. She keeps changing."
Hunter: "One of the things that happened during the shoot was that Nikki was absolutely forced to see her mother in this whole other light. Nikki's Mom is a great woman, very alive and very free. So all these people on the film who Nikki admired and respected and was working with were people who greatly admired her mother. People really dug hanging out with her. It was a very unusual perspective for Nikki to see her Mom in. We talked a little bit about that when we were shooting."
Did you both have moments of rebellion in your own teenage years?
Hardwicke: "I was a little bit more like the girl in the movie who had the Chihuahua on her T-shirt. Trying to get in and trying to be cool but not cutting it. I hate to say it, but that was more me."
Hunter: "Adolescence is a startling time for any kid. I was no different. But my more experimental years happened later. When I was a teenager I was involved with music, I played brass instruments in the band and had six hours each day of extra curricular activities involving that. I actually believe that that is the major contributor to me not rebelling. But I'm not inherently a rebel though."
Does the film make you feel that you're both glad you're not 13 year olds now?
Hunter: "I would love to be 13. If you're 13 that means you're alive. I could never stand in judgement of what time it is that I'm alive."
But the pressures on teenagers are greater now, aren't they?
Hunter: "I think this rite of passage has always been something worth remarking on in an artful way. People have been commenting on it and arguing about it and trying to describe it and trying to unveil the mysteries of this rite of passage forever. Different cultures ritualise it, but we don't really have that any more. We just know it as adolescence, a time of tremendous upheaval in all sorts of different ways."
There's peer pressure, self consciousness and a desire to fit in the movie business as well. Did any moments in the film echo in the process of making it?
Hardwicke: "Well we certainly faced rejection. This script was turned down by every single place we went to when we were trying to get the film financed. And as a first time director people asked why I thought I could direct it. It was a daily thing."