On the pimply face of it, Catherine Hardwicke's debut is just another teen-goes-off-the-rails pic. It begins with Tracy being a good little girl, albeit a lonely self-harmer, and ends with her screwed-up, crazy, totally out of control. Nothing new there, right?
Wrong. What sets Thirteen apart from other teenage flicks is bravery, Hardwicke clearly being a writer/helmer who puts authenticity over commercial considerations. Her movie nabbed an `R' rating in America and it's easy to see why: few punches are pulled as our teenage heroine spectacularly self-destructs, Thirteen opening with the unforgettable image of Tracy and Evie getting high and punching each others' grinning, blood-smeared faces.
Yet, crucially, Hardwicke isn't out to garner cheap shocks. Any hack can elicit a kneejerk wince. No, this is about recording painful truths and showing the whys and hows of teen rebellion. It's all here, and carefully, subtly etched out: Tracy's absent father, recovering ex-alcoholic mom, lack of cash, alienation... Evie, meanwhile, lives with her spaced-out "cousin" (Deborah Kara Unger) and has a history of sexual abuse behind her. Or so she claims. It's a believable story but one that she may have made up - she certainly uses it to wrap Rachel's mum round her crooked little pinkie.
Handheld camerawork and jagged editing add to the authenticity, but it's the raw honesty of the performances that most convince. TV starlet Wood fearlessly goes for broke, bringing a whirlwind energy to the screen; Holly Hunter provides a brave, dignified turn as the put-upon mother whose fierce love is painfully rejected; and, most impressive of all, Nikki Reed burns up the celluloid as Rachel's charismatic tour guide to Hell. In fact, Reed deserves a second backslap for her contribution as the film's co-writer - a troubled 13-year-old herself when she met Hardwicke, who'd started dating Reed's divorced father, she chose to channel her experiences into a screenplay. Just feel that legitimacy thrum.
So why three stars instead of four? Only because Thirteen occasionally flirts with cliché and sporadically slides into melodrama. It's here that you lose empathy, simply wanting to give Tracy a good ticking off before sending her to bed without supper. Thing is, you'd have to nail her window shut first...