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Review: Searing, brilliant 'Thirteen'

New film shocking, but with a point

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Thirteen
Nikki Reed and Evan Rachel Wood in "Thirteen."

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(CNN) -- The new film "Thirteen" offers a brilliant -- and uncompromising -- look at various issues involving teenage girls and the possible pitfalls of the rocky road through adolescence. First-time director Catherine Hardwicke has fashioned a provocative, hyperkinetic journey through the highs and lows of modern adolescence that is both harrowing and touching.

Thirteen has always been an age when establishing one's identity becomes paramount, and "Thirteen" tries to answer the question: What does it mean to be a 13-year-old girl right now, right here, in today's society?

In an effort to find the answers, the movie follows the transformation of Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood, in an award-worthy performance) as she evolves from a pigtailed young girl playing with Barbie dolls into an angst-ridden explorer in the social pressure cooker called junior high school.

When Tracy meets the beautiful and popular Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed, co-writer of the screenplay with Hardwicke), her world explodes in a rush towards premature adulthood that almost ruins her life. Both girls become victims of the media-fueled expectations of what it is to be cool, sexy and grown up: Body piercing, self-mutilation, petty crimes, casual sex and drug abuse are these girls' rights of passage as they careen towards the goal of being ultra-popular and totally hip.

Mothers and children

Tracy's unexpected metamorphosis leaves her hardworking single mother, Melanie, dumbfounded.

Thirteen
Holly Hunter plays Wood's mother, and Jeremy Sisto is her well-meaning but drug-addicted boyfriend.

Played by Oscar winner Holly Hunter, Melanie is a recovering alcoholic -- with a recovering drug addict boyfriend (played by Jeremy Sisto) -- who runs a beauty salon out of her home. She's barely making ends meet, and Tracy's behavior almost pushes her over the edge. Hunter once again proves she's a remarkable actress, and this is one of her best roles in years.

This exceptional film goes much deeper than your average teenage angst flick. The raw emotions displayed here are almost palpable as these three actresses rip their characters apart.

Hardwicke uses handheld cameras and harsh natural light, to the extent that the film almost feels like a documentary. The movie argues that while there have always been teenagers at the extreme ends of any given culture, now the extremes have become the norm. In our relentless world of consumerism, "Girl Culture" has taken hold -- a world of fast living and confusion fueled by anger, fear and rebellion.

As the co-writer of the script, Reed lived through many of the events seen on the screen, and the result is an unvarnished portrait of teenage life.

Food for thought -- and discussion

Ironically, with an R rating, the film cannot be seen (without an adult) by the very age group depicted in the film -- but it's well worth seeing, both for parents and their children.

Sure, any parents viewing this film might be tempted to lock their daughters in the house until the girls reach 18. On the other hand, a parent viewing this uncompromising movie with his or her daughter could find that it opens all kinds of avenues of discussion.

"Thirteen" is a provocative peek into the raw world of modern urban adolescence -- but it's a peek with lots of thought, and some fine filmmaking, behind it.

"Thirteen" opened Wednesday in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles. It will roll out to the rest of the country in the next few weeks. The film is rated R.


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