Neil Young’s Film Lounge – thirteen

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THIRTEEN

5/10

USA 2003 : Catherine HARDWICKE : 100 mins

The early stretches of thirteen are worryingly reminiscent of Lukas Moodysson ’s irretrievably awful Lilja 4-Ever. Both films fous on the travails of a bright but troubled teenage girl; camerawork is hand-held, rough-edged, in-your-face and zoom-happy. Even the narrative structure is very similar: after a brief prologue, an on-screen caption flashes us back a few short months in order trace the girl ’s freefall into dire straits.

But whereas Lilja 4-Ever (supposedly) tackled the grim subject of poverty-stricken ex-Eastern-Bloc child-prostitution, thirteen unfolds in the relatively affluent beachfront Los Angeles. Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood, Pacino ’s resourceful daughter in S1m0ne) is an articulate 13-year-old living with her hippie-cool  ‘mom ’ Melanie (Holly Hunter) and surf-brat brother Mason (Brady Corbett) in funky Venice Beach. Things aren ’t perfect  – Tracy ’s relationship with her seldom-seen dad is a source of unhappiness  – but the family gets along OK. Until, that is, Tracy ’s adolescent development suddenly clicks into a faster gear. Unsatisfied with her nicey-nicey friends, she targets uber-cool classmate Evie (Nikki Reed)  – a walking  ‘bad influence ’ if ever there was one (she ’s like The Craft ’s Fairuza Balk). The pair start dabbling in all kinds of forbidden-but-fun pastimes. Trouble rapidly ensues.

If thirteen rings much more true than Lilja, that shouldn ’t surprise  – while Moodysson shamelessly bragged about having done no research prior to filming, thirteen couldn ’t come from a much more reliable source. The film ’s co-star Reed (now 15) wrote the script with longtime friend Hardwicke, basing it on her own experiences (according to the writers, Evie is a composite). This explains how thirteen is so strong on the turn-on-a-sixpence fickleness of trend-chasing teenage girls, their speech-patterns ( “I totally just stole this ”), the mercurial intensity of their emotions, their need for role-models ( “I love you, Christina Ricci! ”), their casual cruelties, their solipsisms, and raw insecurities  – and also in its presentation of Los Angeles as the ultimate dangerous playground for hedonistic youngsters. Reed, Wood and Hunter make the most of their centre-stage moments, while Deborah Kara Unger excels in her relatively brief appearances as Evie ’s apparently spaced-out guardian Brooke.

Despite all these plusses, (and Lilja 4-Ever ’s many flaws) thirteen might have been a better movie if Moodysson (who ’s excellent with young actors) had directed it, just so long as he wasn ’t allowed any interference in the script. First-time director Hardwicke, who ’s as fond of crude zoom effects as the Swede, over-directs to an almost unwatchable degree, deploying camerawork so wildly wayward you pity the poor cinematographer Elliot Davis. The nadir comes during one of the film ’s many blazing domestic rows, when Hardwicke has the camera see-sawing left and right  – this is supposedly a kitchen floor we ’re looking at, not the deck of a listing pirate ship.

At such times the film does feel rather like melodramatic, cautionary, dysfunctional-family (i.e. absent-dad) TV-movie material on Alanis Morrissette-ish themes, slickly scored with relentless teen mizak and tricked up with gimmicky indie-grunge stylistics. Hardwicke may think her approach somehow mirrors Tracy and Evie ’s MTV-generation hyperkineticism. If so, she ’s all too successful: thirteen is like spending a couple of hours (at least) locked in a small room with a pair of screeching teenagers. By the time it ’s over, you ’ve learned a lot  – but wonder whether the price was really worth paying.

14th November, 2003
(seen 30th October : Odeon West End, London  – London Film Festival)

click here for a full list of films covered at the 2003 London Film Festival

by Neil Young