A chilling chronicle of unbridled adolescent angst, Thirteen will probably resonate with anyone who remembers puberty as a bumpy ride. For me, age 12 was the last bastion of carefree childhood. Suddenly, all my friends became interested only in boys, with a requisite concern about the clothing and makeup likely to attract them. Helpless to resist the junior-high zeitgeist, I was particularly drawn to two girls who flirted with danger. They seemed to generate the most male attention.
The danger-girls of Thirteen, now playing at the Roxy in Burlington, are catnip for pretty Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood). This once-studious California naïf tosses her stuffed animals in the trash after finding a jaded mentor in Evie, portrayed by 15-year-old Nikki Reed. Reed co-wrote the screenplay with director Catherine Hardwicke based on her own earlier experiences.
Tracy is enthralled by Evie, a drug-dealing vixen generally considered the edgiest babe in seventh grade. The kid appears to be cool, but she's actually quite cold. Fleeing an unstable foster-care placement, the Machiavellian dynamo uses a feel-sorry-for-me strategy to move in with her new pal.
Tracy's home is not altogether happy, either, but the calculating Evie soon insinuates herself into the family. Single mom Melanie (Holly Hunter), who runs a beauty parlor there, is a recovering alcoholic and a soft touch. Her boyfriend Brady (Jeremy Sisto), a frequent overnight visitor, is trying to kick a cocaine habit. A fellow AA member sometimes also camps out at the house with her little daughter and big dog.
Clever Evie manipulates the situation by appealing to Melanie's maternal instincts, even as she influences Tracy to try an array of forbidden behaviors, from shoplifting to seduction. With their tongues and navels pierced, they dress in thong panties, tight low-rider jeans and skimpy halter-tops. Hardwicke, making a strong directorial debut, pauses briefly to show billboards that promote ever more salacious fashions for the nubile. The culture screams: "You're nobody if you're not wearing the latest slutty styles."
At first, only Melanie's skateboarding son Mason (Brady Corbet) is wary of Evie. He observes that his older sister has changed for the worse long before it occurs to their mother, who is blindsided by Tracy's building rage. It's a familiar cycle: Unable to direct their anger at an absentee father - in this case, he's well-meaning but remarried - children often blame the reliable parent. That person, in turn, may be too overcome by guilt to counter the inappropriate fury.
Melanie is confused by the fine line between Tracy's genuine right to privacy and the urgent need for tough love. Hunter gives an astonishing performance as a former hippie whose laissez-faire approach to mothering no longer makes sense. An already bad scene is further clouded by substance abuse. In my own wild days, tobacco and alcohol were the popular taboos essential to any rebellion. Now, of course, a variety of other chemicals have joined the list.
Inhalants inspire the most self-destructive urges in Evie and Tracy. The anesthetic side-effects of "huffing" allow them to punch each other without pain, producing giggles instead of groans. Tracy is also prone to self-mutilation. She cuts her arm with a razor, another all-too-common teen practice in these times.
Violence is right below the surface of all Tracy's experiments. Hardwicke captures the chaotic energy of youth, an almost supernatural force that no adult can hope to tame with ordinary means. It's no wonder that poltergeists supposedly prey on this demographic. When Melanie and a therapist she knows stage an intervention, Evie and Tracy resist with devilish cunning, quickly reducing the older women to quivering silence.
While the kids do seem possessed, their problem is entirely earth-bound. Given brains likely to develop far more slowly than bodies, the danger-girls are willing victims in a society that rewards the coy posturing of Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears. Although similarly betrayed by my own hormones, I was never completely stranded in a boy-crazy fog. And what qualified as juvenile delinquency back then now seems innocent by comparison.
As a cautionary tale, Thirteen does not glamorize Tracy's swift descent into the madness of wrong choices. The message is that nihilism can carry an exacting price. Yet Wood and Reed are so utterly convincing that it's easy to understand how their real-life contemporaries might become thrill-seekers who grow up too fast - if they're lucky enough to grow up at all.