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In 2003, Catherine Hardwicke’s directorial debut had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Thirteen revels in the giddy highs of the budding friendship between two young girls, Tracy (Evan Rachel-Wood) and Evie (Nikki Reed). Tracy spends her spare time babysitting and writing poetry. Evie spends hers shopping and experimenting with older boys. As teenage girls are wont to do, the two clamp onto one another with the force of two magnets.

A latchkey kid whose newly single mother Melanie (Holly Hunter) is recovered alcoholic struggling to make ends meet, Tracy is vulnerable. She’s easily seduced. And Evie is seductive.

As the narrative progresses the image becomes desaturated, draining in colour as Tracy becomes more alienated from her family, and from herself.

“Hit me!” shouts Tracy, in the film’s opening scene. “I’m serious, I can’t feel anything.” Evie whacks her across the face; the pair shriek and thrash with delight. Tracy’s mouth begins to bleed. The girls are high, in a dreamy altered state. Hardwicke shoots the girls with verité intimacy, using a handheld camera that shakes with the vibration of each slap. It moves as hyperactively as its subjects.

The film was Hardwicke’s directorial debut and a critical darling, winning Sundance’s Grand Jury prize. It took $4 million at the box office domestically, four times the amount it cost to make. It was profitable proof that Hardwicke ‘got’ teenagers, and specifically teenage girls. Indeed, she co-wrote the script with one: Reed was the young daughter of an ex-boyfriend and the real life inspiration behind the project. A different filmmaker might’ve mined Reed’s experiences for research. Hardwicke gave the then-fourteen year-old a co-author credit, and put her in the film.

With its R-rated certificate and dark subject matter, the film was about teenage girls but not necessarily for them. Scenes of drug use, self-harm and underage sex were perhaps worried to be a corrupting influence. Never mind the hypersexual pop culture thirteen year-olds were likely already consuming (2003 was also the year Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ was released, to take just one example).

The film is smart enough to show how the adults around these girls enable their bad behaviour. Tracy and Evie are twins or at least sisters in tight purple t-shirts, their straight up-and-down bodies mimicking the kind of Girls Gone Wild sexuality they’ve seen on TV, performing for an older boy’s enjoyment. The college-aged boy is weak to their charms, allowing them to kiss him, kissing them back. The scene is not an endorsement of anyone’s behaviour. The boy is reminded that these girls are thirteen, and that he should know better.

Hardwicke wouldn’t make a movie for the teenage girl demographic for another five years (she would go on to direct the film adaptation of Stephanie Meyer’s wildly popular YA novel Twilight, a true teenage phenomenon if there ever was one).

Thirteen year-old girls might get quite a lot out of this film. Hardwicke adopts their perspective and foregrounds their desires. She understands the way they look and feel and think, noticing the details the girls take in about one another. A montage of crash zooms zeroes in on a belly-button ring, rubber ‘shag’ bands and the silver crucifix that dangles from a velvet choker.

Like its soundtrack (Katy Rose and Liz Phair) and the landline the girls gossip on, the film’s fashion sense fixes it in time; boyish hoodies are traded for low-rise jeans and exposed thongs. Bunches are restyled into chic space buns. T-shirts are slashed and then safety-pinned. Tracy boldly steals a wallet in the hope of impressing Evie; impressed indeed, the girls hit the mall, heading straight to Sketchers for clompy flatform sandals. All around them are tubes of body glitter and t-shirts emblazoned with the words “I HEART COCK”.

Tracy eyes a pair of jeans (bootcut, naturally), adorned with a strip of animal print fuzz. “You look incredible,” Melanie tells her daughter. “But not for seventy-five bucks, babe.”

Hardwicke understands the utter indignity of puberty. Tracy’s rage at having to wear pedal pushers purchased by her mother is entirely credible. “I LOOK STUPID! HELLO!” she barks at her mother.

But Melanie is doing her best.

Thirteen’s script drew from Reed’s personal experiences of drugs and self-harm, as well as her tumultuous relationship with her mother. In an interview with The New York Times, Reed describes an early draft in which Melaine is the film’s villain. With Hardwicke’s encouragement, the character was softened. “Catherine reminded me that my mom is a human being and told me to write down everything funny that my mom ever said,” remembers Reed.

“He’s just gonna tune up your car, right?” Tracy asks her mother, upon the arrival of a handsome houseguest. “It needs it,” purrs Melanie.

The film is as concerned with (and about) Melanie as it is about her daughter. Hardwicke resists blaming her for Tracy’s sidewards spiral, refusing to concede that she’s simply inherited her mother’s history of addiction. Hunter is a fierce and fighting presence, worn down by Tracy’s desire to self-destruct and determined not to let her.

"This is the best day of my life; I'll kill you if you embarrass me!" screams Tracy.

Thirteen is now itself a teenager, by the way. A sixteen year-old. Older, wiser, more responsible, in theory.

I was eleven when the film was released; watching it as an adult, I found myself shocked by the spontaneity of Tracy decision to pierce her tongue, by a scene of the girls taking acid. Mostly though, I was impressed, moved by Hardwicke’s decision to give so much space to their joy. In Peter Bradshaw’s 2003 review for The Guardian, he described the girls as “aristocrats whose privileges are exercised in secret and only for a short space of time”. High at a party and drunk on breaking the rules with a best friend, everything spins, is rendered blurry blue and gold before the night sours and childhood fades to black. It’s chaos. It’s being thirteen.

Written by Observer film critic Simran Hans.

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