Whoah! Put away that gun. I'm just trying to emphasize that, in the case of director Catherine Hardwicke's confident, engaging debut feature, Thirteen, it doesn't necessarily take one to know one. What could have become a heinous TV movie instead delivers the moving and relatable experience of being an emotionally overburdened person stuck in a world that mostly sucks. The protagonists are screwed-up, barely pubescent girls, but -- much like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains or Over the Edge more than twenty years ago -- this is definitely an all-ages show.
Much of Thirteen's success can be attributed to its having been cowritten by actual thirteen-year-old Nikki Reed (now fifteen). Doubtless, Reed is being fast-tracked to fame by agents and managers (if not parents) eager to "brand" her for the masses, and we'll probably have to tolerate her assorted sputterings when her tank runs out of gas. But she and director Hardwicke have crafted a tight, raucous script, starting with the opening hook of two young "best friends" getting stoned in a girlie bedroom and giddily punching each other in the face -- hard. Thirteen's character nuances (laundry, lasagna) and radical-chick melodrama (sexual acting out, clandestine "cutting") actually complement one another.
Reed, a talented actress, plays crazy-sexy-cool bad girl Evie Zamora to the hilt. She shoplifts on Melrose, snubs mere mortals and stridently sexes up her cadre of horny B-boys. She's everything that sweet little Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) isn't, and Tracy will do anything to assimilate her aggressive style. Soon, both thirteen-year-olds are talking the same, stealing the same, getting pierced the same and getting fucked up the same.
If that were Thirteen's whole deal, you might be better off with Hilary Duff. But Holly Hunter brings sensational emotional fireworks to complete the girlie triumvirate. As Tracy's struggling single mom, Melanie, Hunter -- like Reed and Wood -- delivers a pitch-perfect performance; hampered slightly by pointless nudity, it's nonetheless a triumph of vulnerability. She's the girl-woman who can't stop giving, whose reality hits the ropes when she's bashed with the double whammy of Evie's undeniably bad influence and the girl's desperate need for -- and crush on -- anyone who'll play her mommy for a while.
Teen hubbub and gratuitous titillation may make Thirteen sag for some, and the movie doesn't reach the girl-angst gold standard of Heavenly Creatures, but a few sequences approach genius. When Tracy's father (D.W. Moffett) exits after a perfunctory visit, Tracy and her druggie-surfer brother (Brady Corbet) stare as their excuse for a genetically implausible dad stands beside his shiny new car, tethered to his cell phone, and asks, "Could somebody please tell me what is the problem, in a nutshell?" Tracy's detachment and her brother's disbelieving shrug reveal that the questioner is answering himself.
Hardwicke comes up aces technically as well. With its grainy frames and twitchy camera, her movie looks like a clichéd jeans commercial -- and nothing could be more appropriate. When Melanie's well-meaning crackhead boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto) again takes up residence with them, it works perfectly that Hardwicke and director of photography Elliot Davis gradually desaturate the color to match the family's existence. In this and many other ways, the movie is fully dedicated to the real feelings of its titular age. Devoid of trite fantasy but full of life's frictions, it could have been called What a Girl Actually Has.