Produced by Antidote Films and Michael London Productions
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Screenplay by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed
Distributed by 20th Century Fox

I am writing this review in my room at Hertford College in Oxford University, where I am attending the Evelyn Waugh centennial conference.  Waugh studied at Hertford from 1921 to 1924, and, though not a distinguished student, he acquired some critical skills during his tenure.  He learned how to drink immoderately, rag his friends and enemies unmercifully, and explode British complacency hilariously.  There was, however, one skill he did not learn: how to dispose of used condoms.  He would, I am sure, be heartened immeasurably to learn that, since his time, Hertford College has corrected this educational lapse and, what’s more, admitted lady students so that they can perform the chore.  In the water closet outside my room, there is a sign reading, “Ladies: Please dispose of sanitary napkins, panty liners, and used condoms in the bin provided, not in the waste disposal bins in your rooms.”

Well, that’s just good sense, isn’t it?  And yet, I would raise a question: How does a normal undergraduate interpret this message?  I cannot speak for all undergraduates, and I would not presume to speak for 18-year-old coeds, but I can speak for myself.  Here is how I would have understood this message at 18: The authorities expect me to fornicate regularly.  What’s more, if I am not fornicating, then perhaps there is something wrong with me.  Maybe I should run over to the student commons and get a gross of those things just in case an unavoidable occasion arises.  I would not want to let my side down.

What does this have to do with director Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, the film ostensibly under review?  In a word, everything.

For a good many years now, well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning adults have been traducing the young with value-neutral messages about how they should conduct their intimate lives.  It was thought by our self-appointed experts that it wouldn’t do to be prudish and say anything that might possibly suggest that the young should restrain themselves in these matters.  Besides, they wouldn’t listen, would they?  Better to wrap them in rubber and hope for the best.  Now that we know that the best is not happening, our official guardians have prescribed even more value-free information starting at ever-earlier ages: sex ed in the second grade; AIDS ed in the third.  The results have been quite predictable, and they are on display in Hardwicke’s film featuring overheated 13-year-old girls gone wild.

Thirteen has been touted as a devastating portrayal of girls on the road to pop-culture hell.  They tattoo their torsos, pierce their tongues and navels, take and sell drugs, seduce African-American youths, and generally make jerks of themselves.  (Why African-Americans, bye-the-bye?  Does Hardwicke harbor some outre notions about black sexuality?  Or does she assume the underclass is inherently less responsible?)  The film tells us all this with a breathless handheld camera circling about some typical denizens of the American lower-middle class.  At its vortex totters Mel (Holly Hunter), a beleaguered divorcée who does not know what’s happening to her daughter, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood).  We do, however: America is happening to her, at least the America of our currently poisonous culture.

I am of two minds concerning Thirteen.  On the plus side, it is a cautionary tale about how divorce and self-indulgent adults affect the young.  At the same time, its warning comes at the expense of seriously compromising its underage actors.

As a cautionary drama, it is rather better than most.  Hardwicke has decided to restrict her point of view to her central character, Tracy.  She has been virtually abandoned by her father, who has left Mel for the lusher pastures of a younger woman.  In his absence, Mel babysits and cuts hair to keep her household barely afloat.  She also carries on a desultory affair with a neighbor, Steve, like herself a recovering drug user.  One of Hardwicke’s shrewder decisions is to withhold much of the adult information from the audience.  We see the ménage in bits and pieces, as does Tracy, who knows more than she should but only in a fragmentary way.  This, together with the jittery camera, renders Tracy’s home life distressingly vertiginous.  There’s no balance, no certainty.  Everything swirls as if in an emotional mixmaster constantly set to FRAPPE.

Mel loves her daughter unreservedly, but she just does not know how to help her.  Although the girl is clearly grieving for her absent father, Mel assumes she can make up for the loss by being her pal.  She doesn’t come close.  Tracy is appalled to discover Mel copying her attire of jeans and a tank top and becoming giddily girlish about Steve coming over for a visit.  The moral instability of the fatherless household is painfully palpable.  When she belatedly realizes she is losing control of Tracy, Mel asks her ex-husband for help.  He refuses, pleading job responsibilities.  With debts mounting, her house deteriorating, and her daughter descending into drugs and sluttishness, Mel has a momentary breakdown.  She throws herself on her drab kitchen floor and hysterically rips up its cheap linoleum as if to demonstrate that she has lost her footing entirely.  

Tracy’s decline is facilitated by a sociopathic friend, Evie (Nikki Reed).  The film opens with the girls drugged to the gills and slapping each other silly, literally.  They bruise each other, and their mouths run with blood as they laugh hysterically.  Then, at the bottom of the screen, the words “Four Months Earlier” appear, and we are introduced to a dramatically different Tracy, a lovely young honor student entering seventh grade.  Soon, she is being shoved around by the cool kids and mocked for her childish clothing and innocent exuberance.  Rendered vulnerable by the turmoil at home, she cannot abide more rejection at school, so she decides to join the hip crowd.  To do so, she allies herself with Evie, the “hottest” girl in her middle school.  Tracy does not grasp that Evie is far more neglected than she is.  In fact, Evie has been made a sociopath by being virtually abandoned by the drug-addled woman who may or may not be her mother.  With a feral cunning born of abuse, she immediately identifies Tracy as an easy touch and literally moves into both her life and home.  She easily gets round the well-meaning Mel by telling her that she has been abused by her guardian’s boyfriends.  Meanwhile, Evie continues her campaign to bring Tracy down to her level.  This includes a program of drugs and seduction.  Preparing to hang out with two older boys, she inveigles Tracy into kissing her as “practice.”  Tracy is too innocent to understand what Evie is up to, and, later, she is also foolish and confused enough to imitate the seductive arts she practices on her young man during their double date.  Here, the story takes on a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect.  Evie is the vixen in Tracy, the sexually wised-up manipulator any young woman might become if she finds herself in an abusive environment composed purely of power relations.  Without overplaying her hand, Hardwicke has been able to suggest this without stretching the story into an unrealistic melodrama.  Her characters remain plausibly human—even Evie turns out to be something much less and, therefore, much more than a devil woman.

Having said this, I must register strong reservations about this film.  Good intentions do not excuse compromising young girls.  Reed and Wood were only 14 and 15, respectively, when making the film.  It will not do to say that they knew all about these things already.  As youngsters of our age, they undoubtedly did.  I am not talking about preserving their innocence.  Young women generally have always known about the basics of sex earlier than their male coevals.  That is why most societies have countenanced what we would call “child brides.”  Furthermore, the story is supposed to be based on Reed’s own experience.  She was the real Tracy and participated in writing the script with Hardwicke, who was in a relationship with her father at the time.  Whatever these young ladies know, whatever they have experienced, there is no justification for having them simulate the erotic behavior displayed in this movie.  While nothing is graphic by today’s abysmal standards, there is no doubt about what kinds of sexual activities the girls will engage in when the camera cuts away.  Given the powerful forces working on the young, both hormonally and culturally, it is idle to argue that they would be immune to the implications of these enactments or that they could stand back from them to assess rationally their inadvisability at their age and state in life.  Then there’s Hardwicke’s relationship with Reed’s father.  How did it affect Reed to work with the woman who replaced her mother, Hunter’s character, in her father’s affections?  Doesn’t this, together with the body-piercing and tattooing, make all these women collaborators in their own sexual objectification?  

Which brings me back to the condom-disposal notice posted for the Oxford ladies.  Could this sign be a perverse parody of the role accorded women in earlier ages?  Women were once understood to be the gatekeepers of their virtue rather than connivers in their own defilement.  Is there any possibility of returning to this antiquated notion?  Or has such honor become entirely too quaint?