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THIRTEEN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Holly Hunter, Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, Jeremy Sisto, Brady Corbet, Debra Kara Unger
Director:  Catherine Hardwicke
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  99 Minutes
Release Date:  January 27, 2004

“This is the best day of my life…”

Film ***

Thirteen was a pretty good year for me, personally.  I don’t think I’d want to have to relive it today, though.  It’s got to be hell to be a kid that young, having your hormones going haywire and being bombarded by more stimuli than your maturing brain can even process.  It’s no wonder some self destruct.

Some survive, and even flourish, however.  Nikki Reed did both, channeling her own experiences into a screenplay.  Thirteen is a rapidly unraveling downward spiral with a sense of redemption only coming from knowing that the story is the end product of a young girl who made it through.

It’s the story of Tracy (Wood), a thirteen year old girl starting junior high and learning the cold hard truth of what it’s like to be shunned and outcast.  She does well in school, but doesn’t have much grounding in her home life.  Her mother Melanie (Hunter) is a recovering alcoholic trying to raise Tracy and her brother Mason (Corbet), but her life is consumed by her meetings, her in-home job as a hair stylist, and the barrage of people coming in and out of her door, including her ex-cokehead boyfriend Brady (Sisto).

Enter Evie (Reed), a girl who’s obviously grown up too fast but not grown up enough.  She’s the popular bad girl.  Tracy wants to impress her so badly that she steals a wallet so they can shop together.  Evie is indeed impressed, and soon all but moves in with Tracy, becoming a nightmarish influence on her life.

It doesn’t take long for Tracy to start losing control…after the stealing comes the provocative dressing and the body piercings, followed by the drugs, the sexuality, and the loss of self.  Her mom watches with concern but with a certain amount of helplessness.  Evie has a story and excuse for everything, and it’s hard for us to know how much is true and how much is cover. 

This is a dark film, but one that will most affect people who haven’t seen Larry Clark’s movie Kids.  That was an unbelievably bleak documentary-like offering that wallowed in horrors unspeakable while observing them with a chillingly non-judgmental eye.  That was a picture that left me with my hands shaking and a knot in my stomach.

Thirteen seems more like an R rated after school special, in that it exists to send a message and doesn’t conceal the soap box it stands on.  It doesn’t sugar coat anything, but it doesn’t pretend not to take sides.  The R rating is deserved, but also kind of a shame, because this picture could be a cold splash of water in the face of many a troubled young teen.

The cast is extraordinary, and the main reason this film is effective.  Holly Hunter earned an Oscar nomination for her heartfelt role as the mother, but the two young stars are who really shine and bring the scenarios to vivid life.  Evan Rachel Wood is a stunning young actress who makes the rapid transition in her character a believable one.  And Nikki Reed, acting out the very influences that affected her young life and worked their way into her screenplay, is vivacious and yet reserved enough to make us contemplate the nature of negativity and how it can mold and disrupt the fabric of our beings.

First time director Catherine Hardwicke, who also helped Miss Reed finalize the script, brings a raw, kinetic approach to the film with lots of hand held camera work for a style that seems both free and controlled at the same time.  There is chaos here, but not mayhem.  She captures a sense of youthful energy and restlessness with super-16 stock, and uses the motion of the camera to help comment on the nature of the scenes.

Thirteen sounds out a dire warning, and it opens up our eyes and ears to receive it because it was born out of real experience.  It’s not exactly a pleasant film, by any means, but it is a significant one, and deserves to be seen far and wide.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Because Misses Wood and Reed were underage, the film crew were limited to 9 1/2 hour shooting days.

Video ***1/2

Despite a low budget and 16 mm film stock, I have to say this is an impressive looking transfer to DVD.  The color tones are mostly muted, which gives the picture a deliberately grayer look to go with the feel.  Images are sharp and clear throughout, and grain is surprisingly minimal considering the stock.  You have a choice of anamorphic widescreen or full frame transfers.

Audio ***

The film is mostly dialogue oriented with some accents of music, but the soundtrack comes across well, with good balance and fair dynamic range.  Spoken words are clear throughout.  Rear stage use is minimal, but not really required given the nature of the movie, and the .1 channel mostly kicks in only for the songs.

Features ***

My main complaint is that the features are spread over both sides of the disc…just when you thought your days of flipping were over.  Both versions contain the commentary track, which features Catherine Hardwicke, Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed and Brady Corbet.  It’s a decent listen, with some good behind the scenes gossip and info.  There is also a short production featurette, ten deleted scenes with optional commentary, and a trailer.

Summary:

Thirteen earns high marks for acting and believability.  Parents of pre-teens might should give this a look; many may decide to let their kids watch with them.  It will very likely open up some dialogue.