Critics love to champion movies like "Thirteen," mostly because they give them license to dust off terms like "searing" and "laden with adolescent angst." Yes, there's nothing like a good teens-in-trouble picture to help goose a rapidly fossilizing reviewer's hipness quotient -- as long as said picture is stuffed with enough frenetic cinematography and hysterical, intergenerational conflict (and, hopefully, a dramatically ambiguous non-denouement) to earn its indie bona fides.
"Thirteen" has all of those cred-conferring qualities, plus the added trump card of a script co-written by an actual live teen-ager, Nikki Reed, a widely touted find of a writer/actress who also plays a major role in the film. The idea that Reed's age automatically guarantees the film's authenticity is one of the most annoying aspects of the rapturous reception "Thirteen" has so far enjoyed. Battered by the hype, the saner souls among us can be excused for harboring a colder-blooded concern: In how many years is this thing going to look as didactically over the top as "Reform School Girl?"
Answer: about 10 to 15, I'd wager, but thankfully nowhere near the worst-case scenario of 18 months. Solid acting and mostly legitimate-sounding dialogue keep rescuing the film from its own sensationalism, slowing its inevitable devolution from edgy conversation piece to plain old cautionary corn.
Adrift in the maelstrom of a California junior high, heroine Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) has little to hold on to. Her divorced mama, Mel (Holly Hunter), is a well-meaning but ineffectual recovering alkie who cuts the neighbors' hair for extra cash; dad (D.W. Moffett), meanwhile, is a yuppie nonpresence who excuses his workaholic detachment as a case of doing what's best for everybody. Tracy is desperate for acceptance, and she finds it in Evie Zamora (Reed), a haughty baby sexpot who sets the benchmark for cool around Tracy's school. Openly ingratiating herself into Evie's circle, Tracy both scores a sought-after trophy pal and picks up a whole new set of hobbies -- including petty theft, promiscuity and drug abuse.
As this toxic best-friendship flourishes, Tracy blows off her old, uncool acquaintances and starts nursing an at-home case of the smart mouths. But Evie, who's spending more and more time making like Eddie Haskell in front of Mel, seems to be scouting for a new home the only way she knows how: via seduction. Will the showdown that's coming be one between Mel and Tracy, or Mel and Evie? And will it finally transpire when Mel notices that, among other warning signs, her daughter has begun to dress like a rodeo clown?
It's a tribute to this trio of actresses that so much of "Thirteen" retains a dramatic magnetism, because the script keeps giving them really dumb things to do. We're asked to believe that a mother (even a less-than-perfect one) won't notice her child's tongue-piercing for weeks on end, and Hunter has a late-arriving bit of physical business that's borderline mortifying. But what really keeps the film at arm's length from its audience is the sad realization that all of its characters seem to be getting more or less what they deserve. Mel is a chronically messed-up nonadult whose standing with Tracy is more peer relationship than guardianship, and that failure has left her daughter a moral blank slate: To win Evie's approval, Tracy turns to wallet-snatching with barely a moment's hesitation. After that, the girl is an interesting case study, but not anyone we particularly want to see succeed. The character that comes closest to warranting a fair shake is Melanie's on-again, off-again boyfriend ("Six Feet Under's" Jeremy Sisto), and he's a crack addict -- but a nice one.
Still, there is Hunter, who portrays Mel's loving befuddlement with a gusto that keeps vindicating the movie's status as flavor of the moment. Both Wood and Reed are eminently believable as woman-children -- which sounds like a ludicrous given but is no more of a fait accompli than the idea that a kid can write high-school drama better than a grownup. Reed collaborated on the script with director Catherine Hardwicke, a first-time filmmaker whose background is in production design. As an organizer of action, Hardwicke has a ways to go: One physical altercation is so poorly choreographed that we can't help but wonder how many other gaffes are hidden by the movie's pitch-and-roll visual style, accomplished via the dreaded hand-held cameras.
The latter attribute is erroneously getting a lot of the credit for the movie's alleged emotional immediacy. Personally, I don't remember the horror of adolescence looking anywhere near as exciting and anarchic as director of photography Elliot Davis makes it. I recall it as more of a mercilessly clinical point-of-view shot -- a slow Steadicam pan across unforgiving terrain the viewer cannot control. I didn't learn much from "Thirteen," but it did leave me with the sneaking suspicion that Stanley Kubrick could have made the ultimate teen movie.