Ten Years Ago: Films In Retrospective is first and foremost an exercise in memory, and sometimes the results can be heartbreaking. I can do nothing more than request you read Stevi Costa‘s re-view of Thirteen, then immediately call your parents and tell you that you love them.
Sometimes, after school, I’d stop by the local independent movie theatre on my way home and spend two hours in the dark, watching something new, cerebral, and edgy before I headed back to my parents’ house in the 19th-century factory town I grew up in. Sometimes I’d practice my accents at the movie theatre, purchasing tickets and popcorn and soda in whatever dialect I’d decided I wanted to work on that week. I’d always go alone, so it was easy to pretend to be someone else from somewhere else for a couple of minutes before the picture went up in the house. This is how I first encountered Catherine Hardwicke’s terrifying first film, Thirteen. Although I was a really independent teenager and enjoyed doing things on my own, after I walked out of Thirteen, I drove home and all I wanted to do was color with my mom. We did. She asked me, her headstrong eighteen-year-old daughter, what had scared me so much. I couldn’t explain to her then why Thirteen was so frightening. It’s not a horror movie, but what the film depicts is horrible. And I can’t really explain that to her now, either.
Ten years later, the movie theatre where I saw this film (which we lovingly called The Dome due to the Cinerama-style screen that existed there in a giant, dome-shaped auditorium) has been demolished. And my mother died a month ago.
I had signed up to review this film before she unexpectedly passed away, so what will follow is not exactly the review I had imagined I’d write. I had thought that I’d be writing about Hardwicke’s gritty filters and the realism of the way in which Hardwicke and her collaborator Nikki Reed captured being Thirteen. The film scared me because I could see myself in it so easily. And it still scares me because I now realize that this film is both about being a teenager and being a mother to one, how terrifying it is to watch a child grow up and grow away from you.
Thirteen begins with Evan Rachel Wood’s Tracy getting punched in the face by Nikki Reed’s Evie because they’re both so high on whippits that they can’t feel anything. This is what sucks most about being a teenage girl is that you actually feel everything really, really deeply, so that every emotion feels like a punch in the face. This is visceral when you’re a teenage girl, and when you can’t express those feelings verbally, they often become more visceral through intentional harm to the body, whether that’s numbing it with drugs and alcohol or amplifying it through cutting – both of which Tracy does in increasing amounts throughout her relationship with “cool girl” Evie.
We are introduced to Tracy as a sensitive good girl, who helps her mother by babysitting when she needs to go to AA meetings, who writes some disturbingly dark poetry that she openly shares with her family, who hangs out with other vanilla 7th graders like Vanessa Anne Hudgens (pre-High School Musical, and pre-Spring Breakers – films which mark her own Tracy-like transition). She sees dark-haired, make-up wearing, pierced-navel-baring Evie flirting with boys provocatively in the schoolyard and decides that she’s tired of being safe and wants to be cool. So Evie invites her to go shopping on Melrose and convinces her to shoplift. Tracy hesitates at first, and almost goes home empty handed. Instead, she steals money from a woman’s purse at the bus stop to fund a shopping spree with Evie. She gains immediate acceptance as a cool kid with the stolen money that finances their purchases of oh-so-2003 items like Sketchers. From there, the decline into sexual experimentation, drug use, and general wildness is rapid and disturbing.
I see myself in Tracy as I’m sure most girls do. For me, it helps that Evan Rachel Wood resembles what I looked like when I was 13: lots of long blonde hair, lots of retro jerseys and ringers, skater jeans, ball chain bracelets and other accessories from PacSun. I definitely desired to be a cool kid, and clearly was not, although nothing I ever did was as rebellious as Tracy’s actions. I wasn’t interested in drugs (and I’m still really not), although I did certainly experiment with sex and with alcohol. But where I differed from Tracy was that mine was a quiet rebellion. It was one that generally went unnoticed, which is more like the way Evie operates.
Evie’s cared for by her cousin, Brooke, a failed actress and bartender who seems genuinely unfit to be the guardian of a young girl. However, Evie assures us that this is the better option, as her mother was neglectful (a “crack whore,” Evie says) and she allowed Evie to be abused by her uncle. Evie eventually inserts herself into Tracy’s life and lives with her, uninvited, as a means of escape from Brooke’s home. Evie, though obviously not as innocent looking as Tracy, is the kind of friend parents like to have around. She’s polite. She offers to help Tracy’s mom, Mel, and flatters her with compliments. She appears at first to be a “good influence” to those that need that impression, while wearing her “bad influence” cut-up t-shirts as a badge of honor in front of those that need that impression. Evie’s exceptionally good at hiding – at covertly dealing hits of acid laced in chewing gum, at ditching Mel and her boyfriend at the movies to go dick around on Hollywood Blvd., at covering her tracks so she and Tracy can hook up with boys behind their guardian’s backs . . . and at lying about fucking other people’s boyfriends. These facts make us doubt Evie’s backstory – and it’s horrible to deny someone’s potential abuse – but she delivers this fact with the same blank face with which she lies about hooking up with Tracy’s boyfriend, so we – and Mel – are left with a presence we can’t exactly read. There is nothing, ultimately, real about Evie, but her persona has been so carefully constructed that there’s no trace of the real girl who perhaps once lived in that skin.
We all lie to our parents. I doubt I lied to mine any more or any less than anyone else did. It was easy for me simply to hide, to project that everything was fine (still get good grades and do all your homework and no one will notice a thing), while I was out screwing around or, alternately, staying in, in my room struggling with an abundance of feelings about things I couldn’t talk to my parents about because they simply didn’t know about them. I felt like these were things I couldn’t share with them because it would tarnish their image of me. So I hid and I hurt alone.
In Thirteen, Tracy’s mother desperately tries to reach out to her. She gets visibly upset at Tracy’s very public displays of rebellion: dressing provocatively, piercing her tongue and her navel, being high and irresponsible. I didn’t test my mother like this. I just distanced myself from her. I lied only by omitting information. But make no mistake I was an asshole to her when I was a teenager. I didn’t make it easy for her to connect to me, to be close to me. I didn’t let her in because I was afraid she’d love me less, but I’m only now beginning to realize that for however frustrating my relationship with my mother may have been at times, I don’t think it would have been possible for her to think less of me – even if she’d known why I was being an asshole to her as a teenager.
The climax of Thirteen comes after Evie and Tracy begin to separate themselves from one another, and Brooke brings Evie over to Mel’s house to accuse Tracy of being a bad influence on sweet little Evie. The women and girls scream at each other about all of the things Tracy and Evie had been doing, and Evie exposes Tracy’s biggest secret: that she cuts herself. As Brooke and Evie storm out of the house insisting that the girls will never see each other again, Mel wraps Tracy in her arms and refuses to let go even as Tracy screams at her mother to stop. For me, this is the most terrifying part of Thirteen. This is the part that hurts the most to watch. To see Tracy try to push her mother away from her, to refuse to be loved, to think that she is better off left alone. In this moment, we see just how far Tracy has shifted from the girl who would willingly share her poetry with her mother. This is a sad moment for me because I understand Tracy’s impulse to say stop, and because I don’t get to do this anymore. I don’t get to hold my mother at a careful distance. And I also don’t get to be held by her anymore – whether I want to be or not.
But this scene is also sad to me now because as an adult, and after the loss of my mother, I realize what it must have been like for her to see me pulling away and to not be able to do anything about it. I recognize now her struggle with my distance. Mel admits that she “didn’t think it was that bad” when all of Tracy’s secrets are exposed, and I imagine my mother would have felt the same way. For as good as we think we are at hiding, parents are not unaware. But like Mel, I now understand that this struggle is for a mother to figure out how much distance is okay and how much is not.
After I got married, my mother and I would have the same fight every Christmas. My husband’s family lives about 30 minutes away from my family, so we could do a complicated shuffle in which we’d attend one Christmas midday and one at night. And then there was Christmas Eve, which we used to spend at my Grandmother’s house until she decided she didn’t want to do it anymore. For two years when I lived in the Bay Area near my family, I cooked Christmas Eve dinner. When I moved to Seattle, I cooked Christmas Eve dinner at my mother’s house . . . and then still had to do Christmas lunch with them the next day. My husband’s Christmas traditions are this: watch a movie on Christmas Eve, open presents with his sister on Christmas morning, go to the movies on Christmas Day, cook Christmas dinner for relatives and play charades on Christmas night (and then go to another movie).
When we got married, we had to merge these traditions, so our holiday schedule looks something like this: Christmas Eve dinner in Crockett, Christmas Eve movie in Berkeley, Christmas morning in Berkeley, Christmas lunch in Crockett, Christmas dinner in Berkeley, Christmas movie somewhere in the world. My mother didn’t mind most of this . . . but she did mind the choice to spend Christmas morning in Berkeley. We fought about this every year. She felt like I wasn’t spending enough time with my family, even though I was having two full meals with them, one of which I prepared. My argument was always that my family is small, and it is. I’m an only child. Christmas is just my parents and my grandmother and my husband and me. My husband, on the other hand, has aunts and uncles and cousins and some of those cousins have children now so it’s very bustling over there for Christmas dinner. And he likes to open presents on Christmas morning with his sister. My father always understood this. He, too, had a little sister. But my mother, like me, is an only child. So to her, this felt like too much distance. Like I was ignoring her and her wishes, like I was trying to hurt her. I get now that for 22 years, all she wanted was to see my face on Christmas morning. For 22 years, that’s what she was used to. I get that watching me open presents and seeing the dog run around in the paper was how she wanted to wrap herself around me and hold me close. I hated having this fight every year. It made me not want to spend the money to come home for the holidays. Now I don’t know what I’m coming home to this year. I don’t know what we’re going to do because my mother was clearly the center of this holiday, and now that she’s gone, and I don’t have a pointless fight to look forward to, there doesn’t seem much of a point to any of it. I wish I could still have this stupid Christmas fight, because now I understand what it was actually about.
When I first saw Thirteen, that final scene scared me because I recognized myself in it. And it scares me now because I can also see my mother. And I wish that I could be coloring with her right now.