Angst in Their Pants

The girls of Thirteen get their freak on.

Nikki Reed and Evan Rachel Wood: Thong-abuse is only the beginning.
Nikki Reed and Evan Rachel Wood: Thong-abuse is only the beginning.

Most will deny it, but inside every grown man lurks a hypersensitive adolescent girl. Allow me to tell you all about mine and to share some of my poetry . . .

Whoa! Relax. Put away that gun. Just making the point that, in the case of director Catherine Hardwicke's 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 accessible experience of being an emotionally overburdened person, stuck in a world that mostly sucks. It's significant, of course, that the world in question is very specifically suburban Los Angeles and that the protagonists are screwed-up, barely pubescent girls -- but as with Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains or Over the Edge more than 20 years ago, this is definitely an all-ages show, a confident and roundly engaging portrait of the glacially evolving Here and Now.

Kindly note, however, that merely spelling out "The Truth" does not an involving movie make. Yes, we know that being a teen in vacuous modern America is tricky. We know there's inescapable peer pressure. We know about sex, drugs, and violence, and that our nation's youth use naughty words, which in significant quantities will bar them from legally viewing a movie about themselves. We already have boring old Larry Clark desperately peddling these startling newsflashes in his pushy little movies like Kids and Bully. Frankly, the kid from Kids who goes around muttering in a Muppet voice about his hobby of deflowering virgins is one of the funniest characters of the '90s -- which would be a compliment, if the humor seemed even remotely intentional. But where Clark's bombast quickly decays into self-parody, Hardwicke's compassion for and comprehension of her characters flourishes. This isn't a perfect movie, but it takes loads of intimate risks without once becoming an overwrought joke.

Much of Thirteen's fairly unlikely success may be attributed to its being co-written by Nikki Reed, an actual 13-year-old (now 15). Doubtless, Reed is being fast-tracked to fame by agents and managers (if not parents) eager to "brand" her for the masses, but here, she and director Hardwicke have crafted a tight, raucous script. From its opening hook of two young "best friends" getting stoned in a girlie bedroom and giddily punching each other in the face -- hard -- one imagines gifted adult male writers, such as Daniel Waters (Heathers) and Daniel Clowes (Ghost World), anxiously observing their own status as rude-girl trailblazers coming up for review. Thereafter, amazingly, Thirteen's subtle character nuances (laundry, lasagna) and radical-chick melodrama (sexually acting out, the clandestine act of "cutting") actually complement one another. If this were a story about screwed-up boys, written by Sam Shepard or whoever, some weary windbag at Time or Rolling Stone would be declaring it A Timeless Classic.

Reed is also a talented actress, here emotionally sandwiched between a couple more of same, with a superb supporting cast on the side. As crazy-sexy-cool Evie Zamora (the female counterpart to Fast Times at Ridgemont High's primary prick Mike Damone), Reed plays bad girl 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 blond girl Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) isn't, which means that Tracy -- sort of like a potential "Heather" -- will do absolutely anything to assimilate Evie's aggressive style. Soon both 13-year-olds are talking the same, stealing the same, getting pierced the same, and getting fucked-up the same. It's a relationship built exclusively upon intensity and one-upgirlship, from their hard-core attitudes to their primary obsession: appearance. Enough has been written this year about thong-abuse and plummeting waistlines, but it must be said that these itchy girls are literally defined by the angst in their pants.

If that were Thirteen's whole deal, you might be better off with Hilary Duff or whatever, but here 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, but nonetheless a true triumph of vulnerability. Now somewhat beyond the overarching martyrdom of The Piano, 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. Granted, the teen hubbub and gratuitous titillation of Thirteen may sag for some, and the movie doesn't reach the girl-angst gold standard of Heavenly Creatures, but a few sequences approach genius. Devoid of trite fantasy, but full of life's frictions, this film could have been called What a Girl Actually Has.

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