Most films about teenagers - particularly on the younger end of that spectrum - aren't exactly known for their realistic or honest portrayal of such characters. Of course, there's nothing really wrong with that. After all, most films about adults can be described the same way.
There's also the point that a little escapist entertainment never hurt anyone - notwithstanding the often low artistic quality of said films - particularly when the trials and tribulations of that age bracket seem overwhelming to those going through them.
Then again, it's refreshing when a film does take more of an honest and realistic approach, and that's the case with "Thirteen." Co-written by and co-starring a young teenager who based her story on similar material she experienced back when she was at that pivotal age, the film is an often brutal and unflinching look at those turbulent "tween" years.
Considering its subject matter about a teen who goes over to the "dark side," her addict mother, the instigator who starts the problem, the absent father and the return of the mother's boyfriend straight from rehab, this easily could have been an overwrought, melodramatic mess. Thankfully, it avoids most of that, although some may feel that the behavioral and social problems do start piling up a bit deep, one of the film's few flaws.
It also purposefully skips being a satirical black comedy about the teen experience like "Heathers" was, and thankfully manages to steer clear of coming off as a preachy after school special. That's not only due to its content - that rightfully earns its R rating - but also from novice scribe Nikki Reed and first-time director Catherine Hardwicke's (former production designer of "Vanilla Sky" and "Three Kings") near masterful touch in handling the material.
While it begins in one of those less than promising ways with a scene from the present and then rewinds to the past to show us how it got there, the film quickly engages the viewer due to the collective work of those behind and in front of the camera.
Rather than playing herself reliving her downfall, Reed was cast in the role of Evie, the provocative corruptor. Symbolically playing the part of Reed and most any good girl gone bad is Evan Rachel Wood ("Simone," "Little Secrets") in a performance that's outstanding from start to finish.
Although the girls' characters become friends and rebellious comrades a bit too quickly and easily - another of the film's minor faults - I never had any doubts that they were the characters they were playing. Of course, once the "dark side" takes over, neither is particularly likeable and much of the material is grim, unrelenting and not especially uplifting. That's a further testament to the work of the cast and crew in that we end up caring about what happens to the girls despite the way they are and behave.
Supporting performances - while not as flashy - are equally solid. While the likes of Jeremy Sisto ("May," "Angel Eyes"), Deborah Unger ("The Salton Sea," "Sunshine") and Brady Corbet (making his debut) inhabit smaller parts, Holly Hunter ("Levity," "Moonlight Mile") gets the meatiest one and figuratively and literally lets it all hang out as the equally troubled and confused mother.
Baring her obviously toned 45-year-old body takes some guts, but Hunter has no problem doing whatever it takes (physically or emotionally) to make her character work. It's a terrific performance that could possibly earn her - along with Wood - a number of accolades and possible nominations down the road.
Such material easily could have been too depressing, harrowing or overbearing but Hardwicke manages to keep such reactions at bay thanks to a remarkable bit of filmmaking. Although the jumpy, "you are there" camerawork might be too much for some viewers at times, the director gets some good and effective mileage out of symbolically de-saturating the picture as things progressively worsen in the story.
Although it's not a happy tale by any means - there are no easy or pat answers or solutions - it's certainly an engaging and intriguing one sporting terrific work both in front of and behind the camera. "Thirteen" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.