- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

“Thirteen” could send parents racing into their daughters’ bedrooms looking for signs of moral decay.

The film is another cautionary tale on the themes of indifferent parenting and a shallow pop culture.

The events unfolding in “Thirteen” are every parent’s nightmare, although the guardians in “Thirteen” are so oblivious it would take a dozen road flares to get their attention.

The winner of the Sundance Directing Award for first-timer Catherine Hardwicke, “Thirteen” opens with a close-up of teenage Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), music headphones clamped in place. She and a pal are huffing nitrous oxide and then punching each other in the face, desperate to feel something in their otherwise numb lives.

Flash back four months, and we meet the other Tracy, the innocent child who is shocked at the vulgarity casually displayed at her new middle school. The setting may be for children, but the profanity and sexuality oozing out of every teen gesture is purely adult.

These scenes alone could divert a few youngsters toward home-schooling.

Tracy’s transition into this world, an all too easy slide for storytelling purposes, comes when the school’s prettiest girl befriends her.

Picture-perfect Evie (Nikki Reed, who also co-wrote) isn’t just attractive. She is wise beyond her years in how to leverage her allure.

At home, Tracy’s mother (Holly Hunter, a gritty presence with her sinewy arms and unvarnished appeal) is a single mom-slash-hairdresser trying to perm her way to financial stability.

That they live in Los Angeles, where every other billboard worships at the altar of beauty, reinforces Tracy’s need for glamour.

What Tracy needs is a grown-up, but “Thirteen” is devoid of them, at least the emotionally mature sort.

Miss Hunter’s character is as much of a child as Tracy is, eager to be her daughter’s pal and saddened to realize her presence is often unwelcome.

“This is the best day of my life; I’ll kill you if you embarrass me,” Tracy hisses to her at one point.

Tracy soon turns to drugs and self-mutilation, both the socially acceptable kind (tattoos, aggressive piercings) and cutting her young skin.

How should Tracy feel when her mom doesn’t know how to parent, her father offers little beyond the occasional phone call to beg off his weekend duties, and the only other male figure in her life is mom’s itinerant beau, who slips in and out of halfway houses?

“Thirteen” moves so quickly you don’t realize some of it makes little sense. Miss Hunter’s character must know that Tracy has fallen into very dangerous patterns of behavior, but the major fright her daughter’s lifestyle gives her is a dreaded navel piercing.

Did she miss her daughter’s all-nighters, poor grades and tongue piercing?

Tracy, for all her vulnerability, isn’t a particularly likable young lady. Nor is mama, who although flinty and well-intentioned, is so negligent as to be borderline criminal. That such parents exist is all the more depressing.

Miss Hardwicke, a longtime production designer turned director, corrals her characters’ frantic energy into a smart series of visuals. Her jarring cuts during drug sequences are expected but effective, while a few other flourishes seem designed more for shock value. Still, she proves an able storyteller with a gift for tiny, telling moments.

The honesty Miss Hardwicke taps into for “Thirteen” can be credited partially to her young co-screenwriter. The dialogue and attitudes laid bare before us seem as authentic as film will allow, and the performances are equally raw.

The film’s soundtrack featuring obscure female artists pulses when it should and wails when the emotional fireworks explode. The movie passes by in a whoosh, its string of anti-social moments strung together by a singular vision and the knowledge that it all has to get better for Tracy. Right?

“Thirteen” is a powerful wake-up call that might prompt even social liberals to take a hard second look at the ever-compounding permissiveness of today’s youth culture.

***

WHAT: “Thirteen”

RATING: R (Sexual situations, drug use, self-mutilation, nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Miss Hardwicke and Nikki Reed.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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