Thirteen’s Look at Female Adolescence Is Unflinching, Raw and Terrifying

By Eleanor Laurence


Before Evan Rachel Wood took on Dolores in Westworld, before she was vampire queen Sophie-Anne in True Blood or the manipulative Veda in Mildred Pierce, she starred as Tracy in Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen. It’s a brutal depiction of coming of age, as Tracy struggles to contend with cool-crowd ambitions, her mother’s relationship with a recovering drug addict, growing up with an absentee-father, and her own descent into substance abuse — all at the ripe age of 13.

Just 16 at the time, Wood plays the role with a remarkable mix of innocence, raw fury and loose-cannon destructiveness. As a viewer, you’re pulled into the vortex of adolescent hormones provoking illogical rage one moment and giddy euphoria the next. While Tracy’s motives for rebellion might initially be reduced to a desire for popularity, as the story unfolds it becomes clear her adoption of “bad girl” behavior is the full release of long-repressed emotional fractures. A raw hurt underpins all of Tracy’s actions, the result of resentments accrued over time.

If Tracy is uncalculated in her rebellion, her instigator and partner in crime is entirely manipulative. Evie, played by Nikki Reed, is the cool-girl idol at school, and Tracy’s prized friend. Her reasons for self-destruction are far less clear — in part because she’s shown only in the context of Tracy’s life, but also because she never allows you (other characters and viewer alike) to push beyond the personas she readily flips through. Reed’s talent is her ability to make you believe, even if you never get to the root of Evie’s pain, this is a girl who is suffering.

More remarkable perhaps than her performance on screen, Reed co-wrote Thirteen with Catherine Hardwicke when she herself was only 13 years old. Hardwicke once dated Reed’s father, and remained close with Reed after their split. When Reed went through a rough period of self-abuse and destructive behavior, Hardwicke suggested they write a script together. “Most of the lines came from me, structure and perspective came from Catherine,” Reed told The Telegraph at the time of the movie’s release.

Be it Pretty in Pink, Mean Girls, or the more recent Lady Bird, there are any number of movies focused on female adolescence. Each takes its own angle — Pretty in Pink, young love; Mean Girls, satirization; Lady Bird, mother-daughter relationships. Nuance is the essential factor in Thirteen’s success as a story. It is decidedly unglamorous (and unglamorizing) in its treatment of drug abuse and sexual promiscuity. As disturbing as Tracy and Evie’s experiences are, the movie resonates as an extreme depiction of the universal pains experienced when growing up.

This is not a story about becoming a woman. Rather, Thirteen rings out as a painful cry about the experience of being a girl wading through traumatic waters, very much adrift in the journey towards maturity.