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Thirteen

BLESS THE BEASTLY CHILDREN

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Thirteen, a surprisingly lean, astute, evenhanded docu-drama about two teen-age California junior-high girls gone wild, opens with a disturbing echo of Fight Club, the story of middle-aged machismo gone over the edge.

In the nondescript bedroom of Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), she and her girlfriend Evie (Nikki Reed) are getting high on the fumes from an aerosol can. "Hit me!" Tracy commands, and Evie slaps her, without breaking skin. Commanded again, Evie hits harder, and then harder and harder, until Tracy is on the floor, her lip suddenly crimson from contact with furniture. Their fume-infused giddiness barely stops to bleed.

From there, Thirteen jumps back four months to show us how Tracy met Evie, and how the girls' troubled lives began, first, to feed one another, and then to consume them and their kin.

Tracy's kind, loving, foxy single mom Melanie (Holly Hunter) is a talented coiffeuse with a one-seat salon in the back of their home. She makes ends meet, has a sponsor, and attends meetings (when she can) to keep her alcoholism in check. Her taciturn boyfriend, Brady (Jeremy Sisto), has just re-entered the scene after his latest stint in a halfway house. Her son, Mason, a golden boy who surfs and smokes some pot, keeps his typically junior-high rebellion under control. Her ex-husband (D.W. Moffett) has a new baby, a new job and not much time to spend with his older kids.

The dowdy Tracy and the blossoming Evie bond one afternoon at a trendy shop on the seamier side of Melrose Avenue, but only after Tracy wins Evie's attention by stealing the cash-fat wallet of a self-absorbed woman whining into a cell phone. From there, things naturally spiral. And how could they not, when these at-risk girls have parents or guardians with substance-abuse and self-esteem problems of their own, and when they roam urban streets that are pocked with seductive, cat-eyed women on billboards with advertising slogans that declare, "Beauty Is Truth."

The drugs begin with weed and progress to cocaine. The sex starts with flirtation and progresses to mini-orgies. (They fail to seduce a sinewy young man who declares them "jailbait" and throws them out.) Each girl hooks up with a slightly older black boy from their neighborhood, in part to explore the exotic other, but also because, as the ingenuous Tracy muses after sex, "If everyone married someone from a different race, then in one generation there would be no prejudice."

The credits at the end of Thirteen attribute its screenplay to two people: first-time director Catherine Hardwicke, the production designer for Three Kings and Vanilla Sky; and Nikki Reed, the 15-year-old who portrays Evie, and who based the story in part on her own defiant behavior at 13. This doesn't quite beat Beethoven or Mozart in the prodigy department. In fact, the script for Thirteen, while often quite sharp and convincing, has moments of inelegance, and really not much of a story. It's not as horrifying and vulgar as the films of Larry Clark (Kids), and not nearly as smart as the early work of Allison Anders (Ma Vida Loca) . It's a dramatic slice of life, filmed with a hand-held camera that jerks around with psychological purpose, and with images that drain the color from things and over-expose the film, as if to indict the ubiquitous California sunlight in the girls' moral and physical decline.

Although Thirteen remains superficial, it does so in a constructive way, building on what we know about this subculture, and allowing us to see how caring parents can get lost in their own anxiety and denial. Melanie knows that Tracy can't afford all of those sexy new outfits, but when they finally have it out, and Melanie discovers everything that Tracy has done, she excuses her own willful blindness with: "I didn't know it went that far!" And so a decent mother's line in the sand hinges on degrees, not absolutes.

So much of what we experience in Thirteen comes from an unusually nuanced performance by Wood, who appeared in TV's Once and Again as the family's anorexic younger daughter. You can see this smart young actress gradually sculpting her character's inner awareness (she's a talented poet) and bare-naked insecurities (she feels abandoned by her father). It's an alarmingly real character and an absorbing performance, so you may want to step in and tell this child to give her mother a chance, or to encourage her to embrace her own gifts instead of mutilating herself (with scissors and razor blades -- but not enough to bleed to death).

We don't really expect a bleak drama like Thirteen to have a "surprise" ending because we pretty much know how lives like these turn out. And yet, it does in a way, eschewing a cautionary denouement in favor (literally) of the light. In the parlance of the movie's 12-step lifestyles, you can call what happens an intervention, and it allows Hunter and Wood the kind of searing Bergmanic moment that actors agree to make movies for. Difficult, honest and mercifully brief, their confrontation leaves you with some hope, but no so much that you'll forget the despair you've just seen.


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