Monday, January 05, 2004



big screen - january 2004 - the worst

The kind of movie that's gonna spur a lot of mother/daughter conversations that end with the phrase, "MOM! I don't care what it said in the movie, I'm not smokin' crack!"
Brief synopsis: thirteen year old girl (Evan Rachel Wood) from the right side of the tracks goes from footy pj's and a shiny happy relationship with her divorced AA mom (Holly Hunter) to a dicksuckin' pillsnortin' jailbait dropout. When she is shamed at school by wearing uncool socks (?), our heroine tries to reinvent herself in the image of the BGOC (bad girl on campus, nikki reed). This leads to some pretty lame shoplifting on Melrose place, some very bad mutual fashion choices and all of a sudden they're two peas in a pod. A BAAAAD pod. Our bad girl proceeds to corrupt our good girl with sex, drugs, drink and loose ethics. Mom trips out. The bad girl easily subdues Mom's better judgement with tactics that seem lifted from the South Park "molestered" episode. There's some light lesbian play between our castor and pollux that never turns into anything but is just prurient enough to make you wonder if it's intended as being more prurient than it is. Mom trips out more. There's an intervention that doesn't work. Our good girl has been self mutilating. Our bad girl corrupts everything. Good girl fails seventh grade and tells Mom "fuck you" and does whippets. There's another intervention where the bad girl shows her true colors and good girl realizes she's been played. Mom really freaks out and hugs her kid and says "I love you and your brother more than anything else in the world but I won't let go of you right now".You don't have to be a genius to figure out where this is going and if you can't figure out what the ending might be you're giving the movie too much credit.
13 is an overinflated Very Special Lifetime Event that rode its backstory into the spotlight. Seems the co-writer (and co-star) of the movie put it together at the ripe old age of thirteen, giving the entire enterprise a patina of versimilitude. Strangely enough, no one seems to have considered the downside of letting a thirteen year old plot out a movie: predictable twists, MTV/Go-Ask-Alice cliche and some really uninteresting stock characters and moments. Worse, this is a film with the sensibilities of a teenager; the sort of movie where it's considered SHOCKING when pre-pubes discuss blowjobs as tasting "gross" and we get to watch all the gory detail of a confused kid cutting up her arm with a pair of cuticle scissors. Horrors! I am appalled. Truly.
Actually, no. No, I'm not. 13 is a kinder gentler American Girl's perspective of one of my absolute LEAST favorite movies of all time; Kids. But where Kids went so far over the top as to attain twisted Reefer-Madness-meets-Grand-Guignol infamy, 13 is uninterested in aiming for a too jaded audiences gut. The self-mutilation, underage sex, drug use and oh-so-dirty language are only a notch below what you'd find on your average day to a Jerry Springer set. Nothing's especially shocking unless you ARE a thirteen year old. Or the mother of one. And there's your target audience. If you're neither of the above, this isn't going to shock you and if it doesn't shock you, there's not much to hold your attention... except for the acting.
Thirteen's saving grace is its spectacular acting, primarily from Evan Rachel Wood. It's stunt acting, very similar to the turn Hillary Swank did in Boys Don't Cry. Though it's unclear as to whether or not Wood's got anything else in her tank, this is a career making film for her. She's honest and frighteningly real in a role that's got cheese written all over it. Anyone else in this part makes the movie unwatchable and it gets walked out on in the first reel. She's that good.
The rest of the cast isn't bad either: Holly Hunter is ALWAYS great. I'm developing a light affection for Jeremy Sisto and Deborah Unger as character actors and Nikki Reed is pretty horrifying as the enfant terrible. Negative points for casting an actress who really reminds me of my ex-girlfriend: Sarah Clarke (no, she's fine. Does remind me of my ex, tho...)
Scripting throughout Thirteen is generally so fluid and believable as to feel mostly naturalistic and as flawed and unwieldy as the plotting is, I have to guess that a great deal of the script was improvised and worked out on camera. Reinforcing this theory are the occasional script hitches that sound so wooden and poorly designed as to make you stop and ask if you really heard what you heard. "That's right mom, it's a TONGUE RING! How else can I say it; I don't speak no other languages!" Really, does your kid quote Marshall Mathers when you harangue her? Mine doesn't. Can I HAVE your kid, then?
Bottom line is that a general lack of creativity, a stultified narrative and an utterly predictable ending make this film a snoozer. It's not going anywhere you haven't been and it's so obviously inflammatory and overblown that it's difficult to take it too seriously (I had a sister who "went wild" around that age and I easily recognize the lack of creativity, intelligence and truth in this story). Add to that an overly assertive rookie style of camera direction: needlessly assertive "look-at-me-I'm-directin'!" quick cuts, attention grabbing visuals that add nothing to the plot, unnecessary and distracting monochrome and cinema verite sequences... it's as if someone with the attention span of a sixteen year old is editing the picture.
All this would be at least mostly forgivable in light of the excellent acting if not for some really deeply offensive character traits that mar Thirteen throughout. One of these I didn't see discussed in any of it's reviews: a nascent racist attitude. Black characters in 13 are used as shorthand for violence, sex and drug use. Sequences of interracial romance are part of the backbone of 13 but it's unclear to what effect. When Wood rhapsodizes about how "if we all had interracial relationships, all racism would be gone in like, one generation", we're supposed to recognize how urbane and color-blind Thirteen is being. This might be a bit more convincing if we met a single black character who was something other than a playboy or a thug. This is solely confined to the black characters; black boys are, to a one, walking dicks. One can't help but feel that we're meant to be stunned not just by the fact that this thirteen year old girl is having sex, but that she's having sex with BLACK PEOPLE! I'm SHOCKED! NB: the only male characters who rebuff sexual advances or are rebuffed by the girls are white? Gwuh?
Hip hop slang, mannerisms, music (and boy, it's bad no-name, copycat rap, too) and posturing are also used as simple notation to highlight the ugly downward spiral of our heroine's descent. It's all pretty blatant.
Equally offensive, many of the jailbait sex sequences (particularly one potential trois) are often played up to be erotic. Any cautionary film that seeks to simultaneously tittilate is walking awful close to the bullshit line and this one goes to that well a few too many times. Girl-on-girl is one card this movie desperately wants to play, but it simply doesn't have the balls. Instead, lesbian activity is used like black boys: it's a sign of something bad. Somewhere somebody important should find this offensive, shouldn't they?
Oh yeah, we do get Holly Hunter naked, which is cool, but the context of her sexuality is exclusively meant to be humiliating rather than erotic. Now THAT'S fucked. This cautionary tale would rather show me a underage teenage threeway than a really hot grown woman engaging in consensual sex. What are we to make of that?
Also, I call bullshit on any movie that opens with the subtitle "Four months earlier". Earlier than what? When we came to the theater? Lay out your plot with some intelligence and foresight, goddamn it! What, was the "two girls punch each other in the face" sequence really so uncuttable?
Wood is really the only redemptive thing about this picture, but even she can't make it recommendable. She'll likely get an Oscar nod, but don't be fooled into the theater. Wood's performance is the ONLY thing special in this afterschool special. Otherwise, Thirteen is just good acting wasted.

official site - pretty much a right-on review - evan rachel wood's site - deeply bizarre web chat about nikki reed

Watched this movie at the local $1.75 movie theater. Now who can bitch about that? Gotta love a genuine buck theater. This was my second movie of the day and both of them were bummers. I came awful close to walking out of Thirteen, but Wood and Hunter kept me curious. General vibe in the theater felt awful close to mine: annoyed, dumbfounded and eye-rollin'. Isn't it funny that you can often gauge whether or not you're the odd opinion in a theater? Isn't it funny that this is intended to be some sort of an "art film"? Isn't it sad that this is what "good hollywood movies" are supposed to be?
Music while writing this review comes courtesy of Gabba.pod, Fruits of Chaos and ZenZen. Go visit their abundant lairs. Great stuff out there.
(sorry to bust your comment Bryant. Still organizing)