Angelic but troubled 13-year-old Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) plays with Barbies diligently does homework with her nerdy friends and gets along well enough with her hardworking ex-alcoholic mom Melanie (Holly Hunter). That is until she enters the peer-pressure cooker known as junior high where she witnesses the power wielded by uber-hip Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed also the script's cowriter) leader of a fast snobby clique of girls who sport low-rider jeans rock-and-roll baby tees and tongue piercings. They're everything Tracy isn't but wants to be so she dumps her friends remakes her look and is befriended by bad grrl Evie who introduces her to the joys of pot boys and shoplifting. Evie smarms her way into Tracy's household which is far from stable--Mom's just gotten back together with an ex-junkie boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto) Tracy and her brother hate she can barely make ends meet as a hairdresser and she doesn't keep close enough tabs on what her newly wild child is busy doing all night with trampy Evie. It's not long before Tracy is drinking and drugging giving blowjobs to the boys failing classes and fighting with her family. She's totally out of control while her poor mother is at her wits' end--and perilously close to the edge of the abyss herself.
Quite simply Evan Rachel Wood is fantastic. You wouldn't expect this kind of mature well-thought-out performance from a 15-year-old whose only past leading credit is a sunny family movie about a girl who plays violin (Little Secrets) but she shows uncanny range and an ability to tap into deep-rooted emotions not readily available even to most adult actors. Most 13-year-old girls are dramatic to the nth degree and Tracy is no different--she cries silently while purposely razoring her arms makes snide remarks about her geeky schoolmates and hollers at the top of her lungs about her mother getting in her business before storming out of the house. Arguably the most underused not-twentysomething actress in Hollywood Hunter gives a searing turn as Melanie who barely needs a whisper of a push over sobriety's edge but gets a blindsiding shove from her hostile daughter. What might be the least noticed but particularly excellent performance is given by newcomer Brady Corbet as Tracy's brother--he's not on screen very often but his confusion disgust despair and--through it all--love for his fallen sister registers acutely when he is.
Catherine Hardwicke a set design veteran-turned first-time director has 13-year-old girly girl trinkets down pat paying close attention to authenticity in the details: when Tracy and Evie meet the lens zooms in on the girls' cheesy bangle bracelets their rocker T-shirts their shiny Maybelline lips smacking Bubblicious. A handheld camera is used to tell this tale and with a hard-edged soundtrack enhancing its grainy gritty freneticism Hardwicke creates a desperate close sense of urgency as if something bad is just about to happen (it usually does). But for all Thirteen's terminal velocity there's plenty of room left to explain why Tracy veers so quickly and dramatically from Jekyll to Hyde and for that matter her strange family situation. (Very little is told about Melanie's back story--you barely get that she was an alcoholic let alone information about her divorce her ex-druggie boyfriend or why she raises chickens in the backyard). As so often is the with first-time directors and indie films there is too much focus on the fancy footwork and clever details without supplying the backbone needed to support them--there's lots of room for cutting what was overdone and replacing it with information. But what really precludes Thirteen from being a four-star film is the unbelievably overwrought melodrama of its climax and ending--it's like you suddenly died and went to movie-of-the-week hell.