Thirteen questions

Zoà Simon reviews: Catherine Hardwicke (director), Thirteen general release

This film catalogues the four-month descent into hell of 13-year-old Tracy (Rachel Wood), as she makes a successful bid to become friends with Evie (Nikki Reed), 'the coolest girl in school', to the horror of Tracy's mother Mel (Holly Hunter). From its blistering beginning to its quietly melancholic end, this ghost-train ride of a film never lets up.

The opening tableau encapsulates the teen hunger to feel amidst a sea of new and confusing emotions: Tracy and Evie punch each other repeatedly in the face, whilst sniffing an aerosol, to test the potency of the numbing drug. And its ending: Tracy's single Munch-like scream neatly leads us back to this young girl's confusion in the face of feeling. And the in-between is not at all in-between, taking us down the dark and twisted alleys of self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity and the sheer hell of growing up.

Thirteen has provoked a battery of questions, chiefly on the grounds of taste and decency. Ought we to be watching 13-year-olds experiencing such extreme emotions and situations, portrayed so graphically? It has also been criticised for setting such dark things against the backdrop of the MTV aesthetic and, finally, dismissed as melodramatic. The first is easy to counter, as Thirteen is based on Reed's own experiences, and any intelligent, sensitive viewer does not judge the truth on how unseemly it is. Moreover, there is evidence that Reed is not alone in having experienced so much, so young. It is estimated that one in eight American students self-harms, a habit usually begun in adolescence, and in the UK that children as young as 11 have developed heroin addictions.

The question Thirteen provoked me to ask was, 'What took you so long?' I came to adolescence during the height of Grunge, a movement inspired by the darkest, most dangerous emotions, said to convey 'the full ugliness of unhappiness', so I find the film world laggardly in tackling these aspects of the human condition. As for the MTV jibe, as a member of the so-called 'MTV generation', I never doubted that the fast cuts, dissolves and snippets of shaky, bleached out super eight could be used to great effect, conveying the unrelenting deluge of images and imagery of the post-modern era. And, no, Thirteen is not melodramatic: it is superbly acted. Reed manages to be both manipulative and deeply pathetic, and the eloquent Wood-Hunter depiction of raw emotion never jars.

Ironically, Thirteen is ultimately successful because it casts its net beyond the adolescent experiences of Tracy and Evie; it was co-penned by Catherine Hardwicke. Mel is not only a lone parent and struggling hairdresser, but also a newly recovering alcoholic, regularly calling her AA sponsor, and intermittently entertaining her ex-junkie boyfriend. We are left with the sense that it is tough growing up, because it is a tough world, the teen angst merely mirroring the adult angst. Go and see Thirteen. It is not on at a lot of cinemas, as it is not exactly fodder for the multiplex. You will feel numb afterwards, but also reassured by such an eloquent portrayal of unhappiness.