Thirteen is an often-vital movie about the first year of teen-hood that finds an uneasy home somewhere between My So-Called Life and a Larry Clark movie. There is much to admire about Thirteen, starting with some excellent acting by all concerned. When the film presents us with unadorned scenes of teenage life, it is effective and, for folks who haven't been around any teenagers lately, eye-opening as well. Nonetheless (and you knew I was gonna say that), there are problems that prevent Thirteen from being the classic it wants to be.
First, the direction of Catherine Hardwicke is needlessly showy. There are subjects that lend themselves to ostentatiousness and preening ... Citizen Kane, another film by a first-time director, comes to mind. But the I-can't-even-afford-a-Stedicam camera jiggles draw attention to themselves without having any useful purpose. The same can be said for most of the directorial flourishes: the attempts at a cinema-verite feel don't make the scenes look more realistic, but instead remind us that Hardwicke is directing, which isn't the same thing at all. Thirteen is at its best when it is matter-of-fact, but ultimately, the film is anything but blase ... it comes across like a very good, R-rated Afternoon Special, beating us over the head with the traumas of the characters.
Also, as Roger Ebert asked, "Who is this movie for?" While Nikki Reed, co-author of the screenplay and co-star of the film, was herself 13 years old when she came up with the original script, it's not a movie for most kids. And if it's for those kids' parents, what are they to learn from Thirteen? That 21st century kids have a hard time? That we should pay attention when our kids start to grow up? I hate to think anyone needs to watch a movie to know this stuff.
Still, at times the movie carries a great deal of power, particularly when the acting of (among others) Reed, Evan Rachel Wood, and Holly Hunter is allowed to shine through Hardwicke's quirks. Thirteen is vastly superior to crap like Larry Clark's Kids ... at least when Thirteen gets voyeuristic, it seems a relevant outgrowth of the film's themes, unlike Kids, where Clark's ogling is downright creepy. If nothing in Thirteen ever quite offers as much insight into adolescent girlhood as any dozen scenes of Claire Danes in My So-Called Life, then at least the true sense of danger underlying the behavior of the kids in Thirteen surpasses the family-teevee version of danger that MSCL provided. With a little less self-conscious artiness, Thirteen might have been the best-imaginable offspring of Single White Female and Poison Ivy. That the filmmakers had bigger things in mind for Thirteen is both its blessing and its curse. Seven on a scale of ten.