In Thirteen, her harrowing girl-quake explosion of a movie, the director Catherine Hardwicke keeps her camera hurtling forward. It charges into the middle of scenes with jumpy voyeuristic abandon, trailing the characters from one room to the next, through tattoo parlors, cluttered ranch-house kitchens, and fluorescent Melrose Avenue boutiques. The handheld images are grainy and feverish but also startlingly sustained, and they have a way of snaking their way right up to the actors’ faces, with an intimacy so casual that we start to take it for granted.
The restless movement mirrors the fury, the instability, and the raw destructive hunger that are eating away at Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), a Los Angeles teenager who enters the seventh grade with the sweetest of sad smiles and an eager, knock-kneed gait, only to reject everything that she has known.
Early on, there’s a terrific moment when Tracy passes the most popular girl in school, the glamorous and strutting Evie (Nikki Reed), with her crooked smear of a grin, and the images click into stop-motion frames as the two girls eyeball the details of each other’s outfits: Tracy in her modest blouse, Evie with pierced belly button and kinky studded bracelet. The two might be from different planets.
The desire to be accepted — approved of — hits Tracy, the quiet ”normal” girl, with a power so intense that it’s as if she had tasted the ultimate drug, unaware that she’s about to become enslaved by it.
To shore up her rebel cred, she steals a wallet full of cash, and she is then invited to join Evie’s inner circle of the hottie-cool aristocracy. Tracy, too, begins to flaunt the porno fashion signifiers of a 21st-century trash princess: hip-huggers slung down to the pelvic bone, eye glitter, navel ring, tongue ring. Within days, she has made herself over, yet her baby-hooker-of-the-mall regalia is, in a sense, the least of her transformations.
Tracy doesn’t just look different. She adopts a new attitude of tossed-off cruelty, a spiteful hauteur that cuts down everyone in her path. She becomes a proud new specimen of a consumer culture that turns girls into viper Lolitas, and the essence of the change isn’t just her desire to be sexy or dangerous or at the molten center of the in crowd. It’s to be separate — from the innocent friends she casts off like yesterday’s fashions; from her loving, divorced hippie mom (Holly Hunter), who uses their home as a crash pad for fellow ex-addicts; from any vestige of girlhood.
Tracy doesn’t hold back the resentment she feels about her mother’s recovering cokehead boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto) or her barely adequate income as a home hairdresser. Yet she plugs so completely into a force outside herself that it’s really her old self that’s the ultimate enemy. Tracy snuffs her humanity as an act of revolt, and that’s the power — and terror — of Evan Rachel Wood’s performance. This young actress, best known for her work on ”Once and Again,” looks like a junior-high Nicole Kidman, and she performs with a radiant fire. She makes Tracy defiant, cunning, morose, gleeful, and frightened, all at the same time; she’s like a wobbly colt who grows up in an instant by harnessing her rage.
Tracy’s delinquency is laced with masochism, and it’s that quality of inner fixation that Wood nails with uncanny brilliance. It’s no wonder that Tracy’s skin must be pierced — formally, at a Venice Beach needle parlor, or in secret, with the scissors she uses to slice her forearm, trying to coax some feeling up through the numbness of her flesh. Sex, too, must be cut off from emotion, preferably with the edgiest (read: not white) boy available. As for civility, it’s gone, replaced by a kind of whiplash snootiness. It’s as if a lever had gone off in Tracy’s brain, shifting her from one identity to the next, from existence to damage.
”Thirteen” feels like a dramatized documentary, yet it has the grip of a thriller. We’re watching Tracy descend, step by step, into a rock-and-roll hell of her own creation. Hardwicke, a former production designer directing her first feature, collaborated on the script with Nikki Reed, the film’s then 13-year-old costar, and there’s a certain cool aura of journalistic detachment to the way that each scene illustrates a different insider rite of passage.
Yet the tone of objectivity also serves the movie in a richer, deeper way: It’s Tracy who’s observing these rituals — standing outside of herself, acting the role of the reckless, druggy, shoplifting bad girl she thinks she’s supposed to be. Holly Hunter, in a performance of heartbreaking vulnerability, might almost be standing in for a generation of parents who feel as if there’s no competing against the siren song of limitless teen excess.
The two actresses intertwine so subtly that Tracy and her mom never seem closer than when they’re pushing each other away. What’s eerie about ”Thirteen” is the way that everything Tracy goes through hooks into a corporate advertising culture that has become nearly metaphysical in its impact: not just the clothes and accessories (which include her hip-hop boyfriend) or the standards of beauty, but the whole subjugation of identity and flesh to a dictate from above — the sense that there’s just one way to be, and that if you’re not that way, you’re nothing.
With an authenticity that is tender and merciless, the movie shows you what it looks like when youth rebellion becomes a form of fascism. What Tracy needs isn’t guidance but salvation, and when she gets it at last, crumpled in agony on the kitchen floor, her mother gently kissing her wounds, it’s a moment that leaves you shivering, grateful, cleansed.