Some people say that no one stage in life is more difficult to go through than any other, that every stage has its own unique, yet equally difficult trials. The movie Thirteen argues to the contrary, powerfully making the case that nothing is tougher than being a teenager—or being the parent of one.
Thirteen chronicles a four-month period in the life of Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), an angry, moody, and altogether confused thirteen-year-old girl. At the beginning of the film, Tracy’s problems don’t seem all that extraordinary—she is snubbed by the cool girls at school, overlooked by the cute boys. Things rapidly worsen, however, partly due to the influence of Evie (Nikki Reed), a manipulating and worldly-wise girl who Tracy becomes friends with. Before long, Tracy is out of control, abusing drugs, engaging in promiscuous relationships, and rebelling against all authority. Although it soon becomes clear that she is self-destructing, nobody, including Tracy’s well-intentioned mom (Holly Hunter), seems able to help her.
The intensity and tumultuousness of the film is beautifully complemented by its cinematography. Shot with unsteady, at times jerky, hand-held cameras, the film has an erratic, unstable feeling to it, a feeling that perfectly mirrors the journey and internal state of its main character. The soundtrack, consisting largely of heavy metal songs, also helps create an atmosphere of intensity.
The chief strength of the film, however, is Evan Rachel Wood’s portrayal of this angry, out-of-control thirteen-year-old. Some of the movie’s best scenes involve her blowing up at her mother, often going totally ballistic for no apparent reason. These scenes are powerful, scary, and all too real. No, not all teenagers act like this, but many do (I sure know I did)—and Wood acts out her character’s intensity and irrationality with mere perfection.
This film is so dark and so heavy that, at times, it seems impossible for it to end well. Yet, its ending is redemptive (using the word “happy” seems far too flippant for a film like this). In the end, we learn that the only thing that can save Tracy is the persistent, tireless love of her mother. Like so many teenagers’ parents, Holly Hunter’s character is driven to the end of her rope and we often wonder how much more abuse from her daughter she can take. Yet, through everything, she never stops caring, never gives up.
As the closing credits begin to roll, it becomes clear that Thirteen is a film for adults. This is a film meant to remind adults just how difficult and lonely and confusing being a teenager can be. And this is a film meant to show adults that what their children need most from them is not quick answers, nor material possessions, nor any of the many all-too-easy solutions that our society champions, but patience and love—lots of patience and lots of love.