Sun-Times Film Critic 'The two worst years of a woman's life," writes Nell Minow, "are the year she is 13 and the year her daughter is." There are exceptions to the rule; I recently attended a 13th birthday party at which daughter and mother both seemed to be just fine, thanks, but it is hard to imagine a worse year than the one endured by the characters in "Thirteen." This is the frightening story of how a nice girl falls under the influence of a wild girl and barely escapes big, big, big trouble, by which I mean drugs, crime, unwanted pregnancies, and other hazards that some teenagers seem inexplicably eager to experience. That the horrors in this movie are worse than those found in the lives of most 13-year-olds, I believe and hope. It is painful enough to endure them at any age, let alone in a young and vulnerable season when life should be wondrous. But I believe such things really happen to some young teenagers, because at Sundance last January I met Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the screenplay when she was 13, and was 14 when she played Evie, the movie's troublemaker. In real life Reed was the good girl; here, as a wild and seductive bad influence, she's so persuasive and convincing I'm prepared to believe the movie is a truthful version of real experiences.
Evie is the most popular girl in the seventh grade, because of her bold personality, her clothes and accessories (mostly stolen), and her air of knowing more about sex than a 13-year-old should. The school's value system is suggested by the fact that some of the students are working on a "project" about J. Lo.
One of Evie's admirers is Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), a good student who hangs around with a couple of unpopular girls and wants to trade up. Evie is cruel to her ("Call me." she says, and gives her the wrong number). But when Tracy steals a purse and hands over the money, Evie takes her on a shopping spree and soon the girls are such close friends that Evie has, essentially, moved into Tracy's room.
Tracy lives with her divorced mother Melanie, played by Holly Hunter in a performance where the character vibrates with the intensity of her life. Melanie lives in a sprawling house she can't afford, inherited from a marriage with a husband who is behind on his child support; she runs a beauty salon in her kitchen, and her house seems to be a drop zone for friends, acquaintances, their children and their needs ("A $2 tip," she complains after one mob leaves, "and they ate half the lasagna.") Melanie is a recovering alcoholic, hanging on to AA for dear life, and with a boyfriend named Brady (Jeremy Sisto) who is in the program, too, although Melanie has painful memories from when he wasn't. Melanie is sober, but it would be fair to say her life is still unmanageable, and although she loves Tracy and protects her with a mother's fierce love, she's clueless about what's going on behind that bedroom door.