Understanding the ugly inner struggles of teenage girls when most people don’t even want to try, Thirteen (2003) is a classic of the coming of age genre because it takes the angst of adolescence seriously.
Thirteen is about Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), a precocious teenager from a poor single parent household who, at the beginning of the film, seems outwardly wholesome although it is revealed later she has a history of self-harm. Desperate to impress the coolest girl at her school, Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Catherine Hardwicke and whose life experiences the film is based on), Tracy starts participating in criminal behaviour like stealing and drug taking, and develops a deep, intense bond with Evie. Tracy’s mother Melanie (Holly Hunter) initially tries to be understanding of her daughter’s erratic and temperamental behaviour, but becomes increasingly frustrated as she spins further out of control.
Although the trials and tribulations of teenage girls are often depicted on screen, hardly any take their angst as seriously as Thirteen does. The beginning of teenagedom is marked by the uncomfortableness of adult feelings in a naive body- self hate, resentment, insecurity, and desire, amongst others, are felt deeply and keenly for the first time. Such ugly and intense emotions in young girls are hardly ever depicted so sympathetically on film and television, unless she undergoing some kind of titillating sexual awakening.
We all look back on our teenage years with some amusement on how seriously we took ourselves, so when we see someone younger going through it, we roll our eyes and tell ourselves (and them) that they’ll get over it without remembering how it feels. We’re also preconceived to not take young girls seriously, and so we dismiss their feelings- but director Hardwicke is determined to understand them, and created a movie that is full of empathy in a way that is a rarity amongst films, tv shows and books specifically aimed at that age range.
On its release, the film made waves with its debauched take on the secret lives of badly behaved girls. But really it’s a cautionary tale against succumbing to your worst insecurities and impulses. Tracy feels embarrassed about being poor so she steals, she takes drugs to distract from her mental health problems, and she seeks validation in an increasingly unhealthy and codependent relationship with a girl more troubled than she is. She pushes, lies and manipulates to appease the negativity she feels, but is still unhappy, still dogged with the same problems she had before she got everything she thought she wanted.
In the end she has to reckon with what she’s done to herself and to others, and there’s no easy road to redemption or a quick fix. Tracy has fucked up, like kids do, and has to live with the consequences, like adults do. But Hardwicke doesn’t judge or preach, instead sticks with Tracy through every step as she struggles against the difficulties and constant compromises of being an adult for the first time, and forgives her when she gets it wrong rather than dismiss or misunderstand her.
As a teenager, I looked to films and television about for answers about my own rocky teens, but was always left cold by their pretty bow endings. The teen protagonist would shake of the lunacy of unruly feelings and would walk, self assured and at peace, back into conformity with the perfect friends, beau and grades in tow. But I was totally enthralled by Thirteen open ending, and in particular, its final shot. I used to rewind it back to watch it again and again, although at the time I didn’t really know why.
The shot is fixed on Tracy’s face as she spins fast and alone on a roundabout in a playpark. She suddenly throws her head back and screams and the camera freeze frames on her face, but the scream continues out of sync and ends on its own, then the credits roll. Tracy goes on without the audience, whirling through the fast and ever changing life of a teenager, even after everything she has done. The scream, not euphoric but not anguished either, shows that she’s not beat and that despite everything she has felt and done, her vitality will get her through to adulthood. As a teenager who took every hurt and failure seriously, I think I sensed and took great comfort in the idea of forgiveness after failure.