Such are the questions posed by the hysterical, if well-acted, Thirteen. Ostensibly, Thirteen is a true story written by one of the young actresses, Nikki Reed. She's not the lead actress, though, because apparently she wasn't innocent-looking (i.e. white) enough to play the lead part of teen-turned-bad Tracy. This in spite of the fact that the character Tracy is supposed to be based on Nikki Reed. Hmm. Anyway, Thirteen is your basic story about what happens when a young girl grows breasts and trades in her nerdy loser friends for the kind of cool kids who are born knowing how to put on eyeliner and go shoplifting.
Essentially, cute, blond geek-girl Tracy is just super-thrilled to find out that popular girl Evie is willing to hang out with her. Ditching her childhood friends, stuffed animals and general sense of self, Tracy starts doing the two things that are guaranteed to make anyone hip: drugs and blowjobs.
When not engrossed in mind-altered, pubescent hummerville, Tracy also spends all of her time with Evie, who moves in with her for some chaste semi-lesbian kissing and cuddling, and also to hide the large stash of LSD she always carries around.
Clearly, 13-year-olds getting high is pretty much the perfect movie plot, but there are a few problems with this particular go at the genre. First off, it seems like a standard movie trope to symbolize that a good girl has gone bad by having that good girl be white and her sexual partners be black. Thirteen falls into this semi-racist cinematic shortcut, as did Requiem for a Dream and Traffic. Thus, Tracy is played by the tremendously pale Evan Rachel Wood, rather than the darker-skinned Nikki Reed. Clearly, there's supposed to be something more scary to parents about the pale kid with the dark kids than about two darker skinned kids getting it on.
In general, "scary to parents" seems to be theme of Thirteen. From the outside, the film seems like a pretty standard American coming-of-age story. You know the one, where the youngster experiences her first taste of freedom, and goes a little too far and then returns to the warm bosom of her family who must tell her what to do and that what she was doing was wrong, wrong, wrong. By international standards, this would be a failed coming-of-age story, but here in the States, we like to be assured that it's only by controlling potentially disruptive elements like foreigners and teens that our way of life can be safeguarded.
On the plus side, though, the actors are surprisingly good, and the script occasionally captures some elements of adolescence that have largely been left out of other films. Meaningless chanting, strange girl talk and difficulty in discussing emotions are well-conveyed by the dialogue and by actress Evan Rachel Wood. Even better is co-writer and co-star Nikki Reed, who has a naturalism that's rare in young actors. Even Holly Hunter, who can be pretty awful (see her Oscar-level awfulness in The Piano, for instance) gives a decent turn as Single Mom Under Pressure.
The best work, though, is by the varied cast of supporting actors who play Tracy and Evie's friends and acquaintances. Most of them seem enough like real teens that you can imagine them going home after shooting and getting pimples and developing naïve ideas about God.
The cinematography is also interesting. Shot on 16mm, it's given a video-look by washing out the colors. It's sort of an odd idea to try to make film look like video, since video is generally a much less attractive medium, but it works here by combining film's graininess with the palette restrictions of video, adding a slightly documentary feel to the whole thing.
I think this is supposed to emphasize the horror of watching a teen go bad, as though it's all happening for real. If that was the case, though, the teen should have gone a little badder. While Tracy's mom and brother get pretty hysterical about her transformation, Tracy doesn't seem to be that far out. She's doing drugs and shoplifting, which calls, no doubt, for a stern talking to and the removal of privileges, but her family's response makes it seems like she's joined a fundamentalist group and started taking flying lessons.
So, while it's an attractive film with a good cast, the excesses of the story take away from it. Nonetheless, for a film that was written by a 13-year-old, it's surprisingly sophisticated. Nikki Reed clearly writes on a 10th-grade level. I'd just rather see a movie written on an, oh, I don't know, adult level.