Thirteen (Fox Searchlight) 95 minutes, R
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Written by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed
Evan Rachel Wood: Tracy
Holly Hunter: Melanie
Nikki Reed: Evie
Socially conscious liberals have generated as much hype over the movie "Thirteen" as typically accompanies the release of a new Bob Dylan album. "Thirteen" received a lauditory profile from The Economist, and a think tank found the film important enough to host a premiere screening for DC policy wonks.
What's the buzz about? "Thirteen" depicts a 13-year-old girl's slide into a lurid carnival of sex, drugs, and petty theft. The movie's plot has all the subtlety of an after-school special, but the performance of its two young stars and the fact that it was co-written by one of them gives it a gripping authenticity. The movie is based on the true story of Nikki Reed, now 15, who co-wrote the script. She and her co-star, Evan Rachel Wood, are convincing in their roles as teenagers who fall in with the wrong crowd. Wood plays Tracy, a Los Angeles seventh-grader desperate to be accepted by her popular but manipulative friend, Evie (Reed). Neither Tracy's overworked mother (Holly Hunter), nor her absent father, nor her school offer anything to counter the allure of new peers, shoplifting, slutty dress, sexual experimentation, drugs andgaspbody piercing. "Thirteen" is adult fare; there's pathos here, but young children will easily miss the point.
The racy material and the promotional posters depicting two young girls thrusting their bejeweled tongues into the camera won't immediately attract the family-values crowd, but the policy implications of the film are largely conservative, or at least too complicated for the standard big government solutions. The film is honest about the dangers faced by children at an increasingly young age, and it places the blame on a culture of consumerism and instant joy that makes it difficult for children to grasp the difference between self-gratification and self-realization.
The social policy implications of "Thirteen" are almost as interesting as the movie itself. The usual big-government prescriptions of universal health care, longer (mandated) vacations, and "professional" government-funded child care don't address what is really wrong at the level of the family.
In the movie, Tracy and her family seem to be in relatively good health, and though her mother misses bill payments and is in financial trouble, they have all of the accoutrements of bourgeois life. The family also seems to have plenty of free timethey are shown attending movies and parties and socializing at home. It is not clear what professional child-care would accomplish (or is that a euphemism for seventh-grade in California?). Tracy is supposedly under supervision at school for most of the day, but instead she skips class routinely. It is likely that such a precocious student as Tracy would be bored to distraction in "after school care" even more than she is at school. Music lessons or soccer, ballet or photographythose might have provided Tracy an alternative to pursuing self-destructive behavior. But a professionally staffed child-care center would reinforce the idea that, in the words of Holden Caulfield, another disaffected teenage character, all adults are "phonies".
What ails Tracy and her friends is not a lack of professional supervision nor a lack entitlements for their families. The problems are more complicatedthe difficulty of a single working parent raising young children alone; the value Tracy places on approval from her peers; and the excitement provided by sex, drugs, and mere stimulation as opposed to education, hard work, and the simple pleasures.
All kids in the movie aren't in the same desperate straits as Tracythe Asian seventh-graders are shown hard at work on their science projects. The contrast suggests that culturesnetworks of family members and peersinculcate virtues and habits that children will follow, even in a city so burgeoning with temptations as Los Angeles. Two parents at home providing caring and discipline go a long way toward that goal. And families, schools, and organizations that give some sense of the seriousness, the importance, and the challenge of education and discipline would be worth far more than day care programs, universal health care, and European-style mandated vacations.
The movie, after all, has a happy post script. With the help and encouragement of a filmmaker and friend of the family, Nikki Reed has the distinction of a screenwriting credit at 15, and she seems to be doing well in school and in life. Whether the political prescriptions for how to help families in crisis will have a similarly happy ending is an open question.