Angst in Their Pants 

The girls of thirteen get their freak on.

Most will deny it, but inside every grown man lurks a hypersensitive adolescent girl. So 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 relatable experience of being an emotionally overburdened person stuck in a world that mostly sucks. 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 that there's inescapable peer pressure. We know about sex, drugs, and violence, and that our nation's youth use naughty words. We already have boring old Larry Clark desperately peddling these startling newsflashes in his pushy little movies like Kids and Bully. But where Clark's bombast quickly decays into self-parody, Hardwicke's compassion for and comprehension of her characters flourishes.

Much of thirteen's fairly unlikely success may be attributed to its being co-written by an actual thirteen-year-old (now fifteen), Nikki Reed. She and director Hardwicke have crafted a tight, raucous script. 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.

Anyway, 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, 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 blonde 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 thirteen-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-up-girl-ship, from their hardcore attitudes to their primary obsession: appearance.

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 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, as when Tracy's father (D.W. Moffett) makes a perfunctory visit. At his hasty exit, Tracy's druggie-surfer brother Mason (Brady Corbet) stares at their excuse for a genetically implausible dad, who stands beside his shiny new car, tethered to his cell phone, asking, "Could somebody please tell me what is the problem, in a nutshell?" The daughter's detachment and son's disbelieving shrug reveal that the questioner is answering himself.

Stylistically, the material could still collapse into the mediocre stuff of most TV, but Hardwicke comes up aces technically as well. With its grainy frames and twitchy camera, her movie looks like a clichéd jeans commercial ... and nothing could be more appropriate. As Tracy and her family slide further into hell, with mom's well-meaning crackhead boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto) taking up residence again, it works perfectly that Hardwicke and director of photography Elliot Davis gradually desaturate the color of the family's existence. Devoid of trite fantasy but full of life's frictions, they could have called it What a Girl Actually Has.

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