Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
As a teenager more than fifty years ago, a woman I would later come to know wrote a poem that concluded with the line, “It was time for her but not for us.” I thought about that poem after I watched Thirteen, a film about a present-day girl’s first year as a teenager. The poem told the same kind of story as Thirteen, but with the then-prevailing wisdom of sexual restraint. The most popular girl in high school, the poet’s best friend, was already doing things with boys that the poet had not yet allowed herself to imagine. This sexual adventuress had the power to give or withhold acceptance from the high school in-group. The poet described how she “sucked out her [best friend’s] delicious secrets like the cream filling from chocolates.” It was all very exciting and yet the poet knew that it “was time for her but not for us.”
Times have changed. Tracy, the 13-year-old in this film—also a poet—has decided that if it is time for Evie, the hottest girl in middle school, it is time for Tracy, too. Overnight, Tracy leaps from Barbie dolls and poetry to stealing, drugs, body piercing, fellatio, and anything else that will impress Evie and win her friendship. The corruption of the innocent is the disturbing message of Thirteen.
The film opens with a close-up of Tracy’s apparently troubled face. She smiles strangely and says, “I can’t feel anything—go ahead and hit me.” She and Evie are alone in Tracy’s room, and we watch as Evie hits her in the face. If you know something about adolescent substance abuse you will recognize that they are sucking nitrous oxide out of a pressurized can. For substance-abusing children—the ones who can afford better things than glue or paint thinner—it is the inhalant of choice. This scene of sadomasochistic glee turns into the infliction of real pain as Evie goes too far. It is a stunning abstract of what is to follow.
The story behind Thirteen provides insight into this extraordinary film. First-time director Catherine Hardwicke had dated the father of the teenage girl who plays Evie, Nikki Reed. Hardwicke encouraged Nikki, then a troubled 13-year-old, to keep a journal, which quickly turned into the “authentic” screenplay that they worked on together. Their joint effort has produced a success that neither could have achieved alone. In a century of filmmaking there have been many kinds of creative collaboration: most often, an older male director has a love affair with his leading lady that energizes the project. To my knowledge, this collaboration is the first between a father’s former girlfriend and his teenage daughter. The dynamic of their relationship lends itself not to the evocation of the erotic but to the exploration of the self. The film’s heroine is trapped not by surging hormones but by her determination to become whatever the tyranny of her peer group demands.
The peculiar power of this film lies in its portrayal of the traditional archetype of innocence in Western civilization. Think of all those Renaissance annunciations, with the angel Gabriel and the Holy Spirit visiting the teenage virgin as she reads her Bible. These depictions may vary in their detail, but in all of them the virgin is selfless—not simply altruistic, but passive, a sacred receptacle waiting to receive the Holy Spirit.
The girls at the center of Thirteen are anything but passive. Evie is actively corrupting Tracy, who will do anything to win her friendship. There is often harrumphing about the Freudians’ emphasis on the latent sexual aspects of youthful friendship. InThirteen nothing is latent. Evie is aggressively bisexual and eager to seduce anyone she meets, including Tracy and her mother.
Nikki Reed has conceded that there was not that much bisexuality in her seventh-grade experience. The film also omits the roughest stuff in a Los Angeles middle school. In Thirteen, unlike in real life, “nobody got pregnant or arrested, or went to the hospital,” says Hardwicke. Nikki insists that her screenplay is, in other respects, “simply a glimpse of life at a West Los Angeles middle school where drugs, sex, and self-destruction are part of the daily routine.” Those things are not that harmful, she says; instead, “the most damaging part of a 13-year-old girl’s life is the obsession they [sic] have with their appearance.” I suspect that may be true for Nikki Reed herself, but adults who are shocked by the reality of middle school life are unlikely to be reassured.
Reed hopes that Thirteen will be a success on the lines of Bend It Like Beckham. She suggests that parents take their children to the film and then talk about it. My impression is that if these are the realities of middle-school life, many parents are in denial and word of mouth is more likely to keep them away from the film.
• • •
Most people who have seen Thirteen describe it as horrifying and depressing. Is it, they ask, about a dysfunctional family with a divorced mother who is fighting her alcoholism and failing to supervise her kids? Or could this happen to any suburban American teen girl? Are the girls in this film “sick,” or are they demonstrating that every parent’s worst nightmare is coming true? Kids, a film made ten years ago by Larry Clark, had the same unsettling effect in its depiction of a day in the life of New York City teenagers. Adults came away shaking their heads, not wanting to believe what they had seen: violence, cruelty, drugs, sex, and partying teenagers with AIDS, all of them too young to understand the consequences. Parents worry about the adult sexual predators who might prey on their innocent children, but films like Kids and Thirteen make them fear that the more likely predators are other children. Outside of homeschooling there are no assurances for parents who are horrified by what they see in Thirteen.
Some parents take comfort in the thought that most children get over these adolescent experiences. Some certainly do, but neither Tracy nor Evie is likely to move on in life without significant psychic scars. Both girls already seem to have identifiable psychiatric disorders, and yet Tracy’s overnight transformation is convincingly presented as something that could happen to anyone caught up in the prevailing peer-group pressure.
Early in the film the still-innocent Tracy tries to get her scatterbrained mother to listen to a poem she has written. The first line is something like “the boy was crippled but he was not cracked.” Her idea seems to be that terrible things can happen to a person, but he can still survive if his spirit remains unbroken. When Melanie, the mother, played unforgettably by Holly Hunter, finally listens, she is both impressed and finds it “scary.” Scary, I presume, because her seventh-grade daughter is thinking seriously about a cruel fate and how one might survive it. The scene establishes that Tracy is a deeper, stronger person than Melanie; she will use all that strength and intelligence to fend off her mother and conceal her own behavior.
If Tracy possesses childlike innocence before she meets up with Evie, she also already has what most psychiatrists would consider a significant symptom of mental disorder. She cuts herself in secret. Tracy, like a surprising number of young girls, is fascinated by pain and is willing to inflict it on herself. Obviously this secret cutting is a kind of masochism, but what does it mean? Cutting has been featured in several critically acclaimed films over the past decade.Female Perversions, based on a psychiatric textbook with that name, has Tilda Swinton cutting her breast with a razor in a way that suggests sexual perversity—pain as pleasure. The Piano Teacher has Isabelle Huppert apparently cutting her inner thighs or genitalia as she desperately pursues what is inescapably presented as masochistic sexuality. But even in these films the meaning of the cutting is presented as even more complicated than sex and masochism.
Cutting is a symptom of what psychiatrists call borderline personality disorder. Psychoanalysts treating depressed borderline teenagers have interpreted this behavior as something their patients do because they feel estranged and deadened; paradoxically, cutting themselves makes them feel alive. But as we see it depicted in Tracy—and I think this is an important element in many self-cutters—it can be an expression of a desperate need for control. When Tracy is really upset and in psychological pain, she withdraws to the bathroom, locks the door, and masters her psychological pain by actively inflicting physical pain upon herself. This behavior, in its perverse way, may be an example of the most basic psychological defenses we human beings have: transforming the passive experience of suffering into something we can actively control.
Many psychiatrists are likely to see Tracy as borderline on the basis of Thirteen’s depiction of her character. But that diagnosis alone cannot explain her transformation. Evie is a necessary catalyst. Girls reach menarche by anywhere from age nine to 15—most at age 13, when their bodies are rapidly transformed. The film captures a common peer-group response. Children who mature on time or a little early have status with their peers; those who mature late feel left out and inadequate. Evie has matured over the summer, and on the first day of school all the seventh-grade boys are interested in her. Tracy, still prepubescent, feels totally inadequate, a baby. She throws away her teddy bears and insists that her mother get her more grown-up clothes.
Evie notices the clothes, pretends to be impressed, and, in a cruel, calculated hoax, gives Tracy an incorrect cell phone number and invites her to go shopping after school. Tracy is wild with joy and self-importance, and she lords it over her slightly older brother—she is hanging with the hottest girl in middle school. She intimidates her mother and lies about what she is doing. When the phone number does not work, she refuses to give in and heads to Melrose Avenue to hunt down Evie, only to discover that she is not wanted and that Evie’s idea of shopping is shoplifting. Tracy is momentarily appalled and leaves the store to sit on a bench outside. Chance intervenes in the form of a woman who sits down beside Tracy, leaving her purse wide open while she is distracted by a cell phone call. After some hesitation Tracy reaches in, steals the woman’s wallet, and takes it back to Evie to finance a manic shopping spree. Tracy has bought her way into the in-group and her transformation has begun.
Hardwicke’s direction allows for moments of cinematography that break away from the narrative and express the emotional intensity of the girls’ experiences. Sometimes it is just a frantic handheld camera shooting from odd angles, but there are moments when the music, cinematography, and director’s ideas add up to something greater than the sum of its separate parts. In one scene, Evie, Tracy, and some boys take an acid trip. The director films them as automatic sprinklers go off. These would-be adults revert to childhood and frolic in the spray. The camera captures them as distorted profiles of primary color, spirits removed from their bodies. Another scene presents us the triumphant Tracy, Evie, and a third girl outfitted in what must be the height of fashion in West Los Angeles middle schools—just this side of what one might expect from child prostitutes. The girls are walking together outside the school. Theirs is not a fashion-show erotic strut down the runway. There is nothing feminine about this parade. They march triumphantly, like conquering warriors asserting their alpha status. Tracy was determined to achieve this swagger of total self-confidence and peer-group domination. But her clothes have been purchased with stolen money, she has paid no attention to her studies for months, and she is marching toward disaster. Hardwicke gives us her moment of triumph.
• • •
If Tracy could be your own daughter, it is much more difficult to imagine Evie as your child. She seems to have walked off the Antisocial Personality Disorder pages of the psychiatrist’s diagnostic manual. The rules do not permit a diagnosis to be given to a 13-year-old, but Evie is precocious. She takes pleasure in violating norms. She is a manipulative liar who is consistently irresponsible, lacks remorse, and can rationalize hurting, mistreating, and stealing. Evie is always on the make—seducing boys, girls, young men, and Tracy’s mother. Because Evie tells so many lies, no one can know when she is telling the truth. She claims to have been sexually abused by an uncle and has scars on her back which she says he caused by holding her against a fire. If her story is true, it might help to explain Evie’s promiscuity: the sexually exploited become sexual exploiters.
But Evie’s character is, in the end, too evil to be understood. She is meant to be the monster of Thirteen and she is hateful. In the end she betrays Tracy and blames her for everything they have done together. Nikki Reed wanted the part of Tracy, but Hardwicke wisely cast her as Evie. With no acting experience, she plays the role flawlessly.
Evan Rachel Wood, who already has a lengthy résumé as an actress (Practical Magic, television’s Once and Again), plays Tracy with enough believable passion to hold her own against Holly Hunter’s no-holds-barred performance. If the family dynamic does not cause Tracy’s downfall, it certainly presents no obstacle. Melanie, a recovering alcoholic with a kind heart, cannot draw lines in the sand. Her ex-husband, an airhead with no idea what is happening to his children, does not pay the alimony and child support he owes; he is trying to get on with his own life. His son, who seems to be about 14, is already smoking pot every night. His daughter Tracy goes from “baby” to teenager, wearing “no bra, no panties, no bra, no panties”—her defiant tirade when her mother attempts to confront her.
Melanie is struggling to make ends meet and to care for her children, and she obviously adores her daughter. But peer pressure and adolescent rebellion turn her daughter’s love into hate. Melanie also has a male friend, Brady (Jeremy Sisto), a recovering coke addict. Tracy is enraged by his visits, especially when he spends the night with Melanie. When Melanie finally begins to realize what her daughter has been doing, she cracks—the film hints that she has gotten drunk. In any event Brady helps the naked Holly Hunter into the shower. Although Thirteen is very much about teenage sex, and Evie behaves like an experienced sex worker, the film is never explicitly graphic. This one nude scene of Holly Hunter is by no means sexual: hers is the naked human body in abject defeat.
Melanie’s worst moment is when she discovers that her daughter has been cutting herself. Mother and daughter wrestle as Melanie tries to kiss the scars. The movie ends as the exhausted pair fall asleep on Tracy’s bed. Tracy wakes up and looks at her mother. Some want to believe that this is the moment of reconciliation, that mother and daughter have emotionally reconnected. But the screen goes dark and we are shown a coda. Tracy is being whirled around on a playground like a child. As in the opening moment, her face has an uncertain look, and then she screams with excitement. Tracy has turned the passive into the active; she is a thrill seeker. What is it about the way we now live that makes so many of our children self-destructive thrill seekers? Thirteen is one answer to that question.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.