Tracy doesn’t quite have what it takes to be "cool." Her clothes aren’t sexy and labeled. And as a 13-year-old just barely past Barbie dolls, she’s relatively naïve and innocent. And then Evie shows up. Evie epitomizes what it means to be part of—actually on top of—the in-crowd. Her dress. Her walk. Her attitude. But she is one bad seed! Evie doesn’t just slowly lure Tracy into her downward-spiraling world of sex, drugs and otherwise rebellious behaviors, she spawns an overnight metamorphosis. Not that Tracy puts up much resistance. She’s ripe for the corrupting, willing to do anything to be hip.
That’s it for plot. What moviegoers are in for is a near-docudrama in which the camera follows two seventh graders as they experiment with lesbianism, multiple partners, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, drug dealing, shoplifting, body piercing and self-mutilation. It’s all done right under the noses of their clueless and dysfunctional parents and guardians. But to be fair, it’s not the rebellious-teenagers theme that makes Thirteen unmanageable. It’s the way the subject matter is handled (or isn’t handled).
Hailed as a "realistic" film with Oscar-caliber acting, Thirteen took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival. The Associated Press gave it three-and-a-half stars; USA Today gave it four (out of four). Worse, it’s being touted as a "cautionary tale" that sends a positive message in the end. It’s not. The underlying message is that Evie and Tracy’s destructive and addictive behaviors—with the exception of cutting—are loads of fun as long as you have a friend to share the experience with and you don't get caught! There’s no one on the side of reason here. No respectable role models. No one to show a way out. No answers. No consequences. No hope.
Are there actually teenagers who live this way? Certainly. But who needs a film that glamorizes the lifestyle without offering solutions or even bothering to show the brutal consequences? The only price these girls pay for their misbehavior is that they ultimately lose each other’s friendship (whatever that was worth in the first place!) and have to endure parental concern (not punishment). I, and other adults like me, will walk away from Thirteen knowing these two girls will spend a lifetime in taxpayer-run rehab centers. A whole host of teen viewers, however, may not understand the situation quite so well.
positive elements: Tracy’s mother is a mess. She’s sleeping with a boyfriend, allows Mason (Tracy’s brother) to smoke marijuana daily, curses like a sailor and permits her kids to use the same language (often disrespectfully back to her). But she has one thing going for her: Deep down she really does care about her children. The film makes absolutely no moral statements regarding any of the teens’ injurious dealings, but from the setup and tone of the scenes involving self-cutting, it’s clear the director finds this one behavior distasteful.
spiritual content: God and Jesus are only invoked as curse words.
sexual content: Evie and Tracy’s lives have become one big party in their minds. Everything is about them—living for the moment and satisfying every urge and whim. So it’s no wonder they flit from heterosexual sex to homosexual to kinky to group to sex with older men, with no thought or concern about consequences or the rightness or wrongness of their actions. A few specific examples: After drinking and smoking pot with some guys, Evie and Tracy straddle them. The girls’ shirts come off (bras stay on) and a guy’s pants are unzipped (fade to black). The girls’ follow-up discussion makes it clear that things didn’t end there. Another scene finds Evie kissing a sleeping Tracy and saying, "I love you." Later, the pair lock lips and make out passionately.
Seducing an older male neighbor at his home, the girls talk of making "a sandwich." They remove his shirt, take turns kissing and fondling him until he has second thoughts and throws them out of his house (meanwhile they’ve found his marijuana bong). Evie sneaks out of Tracy’s house for a late-night rendezvous with an older guy and it’s implied she has a history of promiscuity.
Angry that her brother is using the bathroom too long, Tracy quips that he’s masturbating. Evie tells some guys that Tracy would like to perform oral sex on them. Tracy’s mother (Melanie) is shown having her clothes removed by a boyfriend before she walks into her shower (the camera leers at her breasts). A later scene shows the couple in bed (with covers). Evie flashes her breasts to Tracy’s brother (rear camera angle).
To be cool, the girls believe their clothes must be tight and "sexy." Even Tracy’s mother smiles in approval at outfits that should be out-of-bounds. Melanie, who is a hairdresser out of her home, tells one client, "If this [hairdo] gets you laid, you owe me double." The girls buy and steal panties with sexual sayings (e.g., "I wanna bone"). Tracy attempts to anger her mother by repeating the words, "[I have on] no bra—no panties."
violent content: Huffing laughing gas or nitrous oxide, Evie and Tracy engage in a game of "Hit Me," slugging each other in the face. The girls seem to find this quite enjoyable even though they draw blood and bruises. Later, they hide the damage with makeup and stickers. Tracy is a cutter. Onscreen, she bleeds when she drags scissors across her forearm. In another scene she uses a razorblade. The girls stick a large needle through Tracy’s bellybutton for an additional body pierce. Melanie expresses her anger in one scene by tearing up cereal boxes and ripping up her kitchen’s linoleum.
crude or profane language: From start to finish, there is a constant barrage of foul language. If this were the only objectionable part of Thirteen, it would be ample reason to steer clear. The movie is 95 minutes long, and averages more than one strong obscenity or vulgarity per minute. What makes the language even more egregious is how Tracy uses the f-word to curse her own mother (with no reaction except to get cursed back). When her mostly-out-of-her-life father shows up for a visit, she hurls the same obscenity against him, too (again, no reaction except the same language in return). Tracy and her brother engage in profanity-laced arguments. When the scenes involve students at the junior high school, obscenities fly as casually as "hello." One boy mentions he "just wants to see some t-ts." The f- and s-words are joined by a number of misuses of God’s and Jesus’ names, milder profanities, vulgar slang for male and female genitalia, and obscene gestures.
drug and alcohol content: Tracy and Evie smoke pot, drink heavily, snort a powder (cocaine?), huff gas, drink something a guy calls "voodoo juice" and smoke cigarettes constantly (as do Melanie, her boyfriend and Evie’s guardian). One unspecified drug has one of them "see[ing] spiders." None of these risky and illegal behaviors are shown as having a downside. In fact, they are made to look like loads of fun. And not only do the girls use, they also deal.
Evie’s guardian is an alcoholic who lets the girls drink her beer. Melanie and her boyfriend drink champagne at dinner. Mason is said to smoke pot daily with his mother’s full knowledge. An adult, male neighbor owns a bong (not used), but while the girls are coming on to him sexually, the threesome downs alcohol. Tracy refers to Melanie’s boyfriend to his face as a "f---ing coke head."
other negative elements: Evie has cool clothes, but it’s only because she steals them. To prove she’s hip enough to be part of the in-crowd, Tracy filches a woman’s pocketbook. Both girls are chronic and habitual liars, and use their fabrications to gain sympathy from parents. They also lie about their ages in order to get their tongues pierced. Gangsta rap plays as both background and foreground music. One scene on Hollywood Boulevard finds the girls listening to street rappers who sing, "I feel like humping something." And sadly, the parents and guardians in this movie are just older versions of Tracy and Evie.
conclusion: Without question, kids can go bad. And to display prodigal behavior in and of itself is not wrong. The problem with Thirteen is that it’s so scared of showing consequences, offering solutions, making any type of moral judgment, or presenting a positive character who epitomizes the flip-side of the coin that all moviegoers are offered is a sleazy opportunity to become voyeurs. So in the role of Peeping Tom, what do they see? Two seventh graders taking drugs, having sex, spouting obscenities and being rebellious. Oh sure, it could be argued that a "downside" is portrayed when the two girls get caught with their "stash," and to save their own skin, point fingers and cease to be friends. But if that’s as bad as consequences get (and in this movie it is), then the logical answer in the exploring mind of a teenager will be: Keep from getting caught and find a friend who’s more loyal. Why not show a behavioral contrast with some "good" kid that does it right, stays away from drugs and follows the lead of a spiritually healthy parent? After all, according to a recent University of North Carolina study, 80 percent of young adolescents think their parents should have a say about whether they smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol … something you’d never know from watching this mess.
While waiting to view a pre-screening of Thirteen, one of the organizers mentioned to me that she had already seen the movie. I asked her, "Is this a cautionary tale or does the movie glamorize destructive behaviors?" Her reply? "I’m not sure." And therein lies the film’s greatest flaw. Still, I must add that even if it had ended with a strong word of caution, its nudity, obscenities, sexual situations, parental disrespect, glamorized drug use and scenes of self-mutilation were handled so irresponsibly that no matter how emphatic it was, it couldn’t have compensated. The folks at Sundance must have missed that.