Whoa! Relax. Put away that gun. Just seeking to emphasize that 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. It's significant, of course, that the world in question is specifically suburban Los Angeles and that the protagonists are screwed-up barely pubescent girls. But much like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains or Over the Edge more than 20 years ago, 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 that in significant quantities will bar them from legally viewing a movie about themselves. We already have boring old Larry Clark desperately peddling these startling news flashes in his pushy little movies like Kids and Bully. Frankly, the kid from Kids who goes around muttering in a Muppet voice about his hobby of deflowering virgins is one of the funniest characters of the '90s -- which would be a compliment if the humor seemed even remotely intentional. But where Clark's bombast quickly decays into self-parody, Hardwicke's compassion for and comprehension of her characters flourishes. This isn't a perfect movie, but it takes loads of intimate risks without once becoming an overwrought joke.
Much of Thirteen's fairly unlikely success may be attributed to its being cowritten by an actual 13-year-old (now 15) named Nikki Reed. Doubtless, Reed is being fast-tracked to fame by agents and managers (if not parents) eager to "brand" her for the masses -- and we'll probably have to tolerate her assorted sputterings when her tank runs out of gas. But she and director Hardwicke have crafted a tight, raucous script. From its opening hook of two young "best friends" getting stoned in a girlie bedroom and giddily punching each other in the face -- hard -- one imagines gifted adult male writers like Daniel Waters (Heathers) and Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) anxiously observing their own status as rude-girl trailblazers coming up for review. Thereafter, 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, 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 (the female counterpart to Fast Times at Ridgemont High's primary prick, Mike Damone), 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 blond 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 13-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-upgirlship, from their hard-core attitudes to their primary obsession: appearance. Enough has been written this year about thong abuse and plummeting waistlines, but it must be said that these itchy girls are literally defined by the angst in their pants.
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 -- like Reed and Wood -- delivers a pitch-perfect performance, hampered slightly by pointless nudity but still 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. That high school dropout "Mel" (as Evie calls her) also craves attention for something as slight as a pedicure speaks volumes.
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. In this and many other ways, the movie is fully dedicated to the real feelings of its titular age. Devoid of trite fantasy but full of life's frictions, they could have called it What a Girl Actually Has.