Some films are so painful to watch we wonder how we'll survive that time in the dark without being scarred for life. Larry Clark's 1995 film "Kids" was like that, and now the Nikki Reed-Catherine Hardwicke film "Thirteen" is another. Roger Ebert, in his review of "Thirteen," reports the line about the two worst years in a woman's life: the year she turns 13, and the year her daughter does. "Thirteen," which was written by then-13-year-old Nikki Reed (who then collaborated on the final draft with director Hardwicke), is the (heightened, I hope) story of Tracy, a Los Angeles girl in seventh grade who wants more than anything to be the friend of Evie, the hottest, coolest, wittiest, snobbiest, cruelest girl in her class. And succeeds. And then finds out the price of that success.
Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) succeeds by dropping her own friends, then stealing a purse and giving the money to Evie (played with brilliant abandon by Reed herself), so the two of them can go shopping together. And the two become pals. But being a pal of Evie brings with it some dreadful baggage. Evie is a very, very sick kid. She seems to have no parents; just Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), perhaps a cousin of her mother's, whom she lives with when she wants. Tracy's mother Mel (Holly Hunter) is a warm, perennially hopeful recovering alcoholic whose guilt at her own failures keeps her from being more than a friend and housemate to Tracy; she blinds herself to the changes in her daughter. Meanwhile Evie has intruded herself into the family and actually moved in with them.
In the course of the year Evie takes Tracy down some frighteningly dangerous roads: they hook up with older, tougher boys who use them for sex; they steal, they get into heavier and heavier drugs. The remnants of Tracy's schoolwork are abandoned, and she is in full-fledged revolt against the too-yielding boundaries her mother tries to set.
This is Hardwicke's first feature, though she is known for her work as a production designer on other films. She uses her camera with extraordinary skill, capturing the feel of excitement, tension, fear and even love as her people careen around the house and the city. And the performances are amazing. Wood, as Tracy, shows enormous range, as she hangs on the tiger's tail of life with Evie. And Reed, as Evie, seems to be possessed of some inner demon that overwhelms whoever she touches. Hunter is clueless Mel, dealing with her own failures but thinking that love will conquer all, yet finally managing to face her daughter as a mother; she gives a moving performance that is agony for a parent to watch.
Toward the end of the film, I wondered whether it would be good enough to avoid the kind of pat ending that comes with after-school television specials. It does, in spades; there is no letdown, just an appropriate acknowledgment that everyone has spent a year in hell. Heaven is not around the corner.