Thirteen is an explosive drama about young girls going off the rails in middle-class America. Clueless, it is not. Director Catherine Hardwicke gives a flavour of what’s to come.
The kids from hell?
Rites of passage movies come in all shapes and sizes. From the cuteness of Stand by Me, to likeable charm school comedy in Clueless, from farcical embarrassment gaffes in American Pie, to the affectionate naïve gaucheness of Flirting. Then there’s the cinema verité angle, the shock value of teenagers as bored delinquents in Kids, to impressive New York stories like the recently-released Raising Victor Vargas.
Catherine Hardwicke’s hard-hitting Thirteen arrives in the UK having been garlanded by the Best Director award at Sundance 2003. It’s Hardwicke’s debut as a director and screenwriter, and it could easily be described as the frightening alter-ego to Clueless.
Co-written by teenager Nikki Reed and Hardwicke, Thirteen follows the actions of a young 13-year old girl Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) who during the course of a school term in the 7th grade, turns from a naïve fresh-faced pupil into an abusive, aggressive, arrogant ‘daughter from hell’ much to the dismay of her single mother Melanie (Holly Hunter). The worst part is, it’s all shockingly believable.
Tracy’s descent begins when she meets the hippest girl in her year, rebellious, dangerous, beautiful Evie (played by the film’s co-writer Nikki Reed), a girl loved by girls and boys alike. From then onwards, Tracy wants to be Evie’s best friend and the manipulative Evie is content to let it happen, provided she also gets something out of it.
Thirteen is a frightening journey to watch, certainly for any parent, complete with hand-held camera authenticity, sharp teenage dialogue (that clearly Reed has worked on), and a storyline that should have a wide appeal.
A UCLA film graduate, Hardwicke grew up in Texas and studied art in Mexico before deciding to embark on a film career. Naturally the first question to her, has to be what prompted the idea. "The film was really inspired by Nikki,’ explains Catherine, ‘I’d met her when she was 5. As she grew up, I was able to observe her behaviour, her desires and passions. She changed a lot at thirteen. She became uncommunicative and secretive. She would spend hours on her make-up and couldn’t be persuaded to have an opinion on anything."
Nikki was the daughter of a man Catherine was seeing at the time. She decided that if she wasn’t to lose touch with Nikki, she would have to spend more time with her. Encouraging Reid’s interest in the arts, Catherine managed to persuade her that they could write a screenplay together. At first, a light-hearted teen comedy was on the cards, but Hardwicke wanted to veer away from an American Pie-style teenage movie noting from what Reed was telling her, that there was a much more riveting story to tell.
"When Nikki opened up,’ explains Catherine, ’it became much more interesting, more daring than anything I could have imagined. I added my own observations of my mom, and issues I’d talked to my parents about, and with me and Nikki acting out some of the scenes, I realised that something very alive and powerful was unfolding."
Producers such as Jeffrey Levy-Hinte (who has worked on the soon-to-be-released Laurel Canyon) and Michael London (40 days and 40 nights, The Guru) were immediately blown over by the script, but they came up against studio chiefs who saw the film as a major risk. It was hard-hitting and captures teen life so accurately, it was seen as too punchy, too uncompromising for some.
Hardwicke, knowing she wanted Nikki to star in it, organised script re-writes, shot sample scenes and was determined to make things happen. She told her producers to just get what money they could, assemble what cast members they could, and she would make it happen. She knew things would work out finally, when she got Holly Hunter interested in the role of the mother Mel.
Holly was invited to come over for a sleepover with Nikki and the family, and Holly was totally hooked when she heard about the script input of 13 year old Nikki. "She couldn’t believe I’d written it with a 13 year old. She loves her work to come from something very real so it made a big impression on her,’ explains Catherine.
Further changes took place as Hardwicke honed the script. The look of the film was also important as Hardwicke plumbed for an approach that would be in your face from the word go. She describes it as a kind of ‘kinetic intensity’ that she first observed in the Gulf war film Three Kings, a film which together with films like Tombstone, Tank Girl and Laurel Canyon, are among Hardwicke’s credits as a Production designer.
Catherine must be proud that the story of Thirteen, remained uncompromising and unflinching, rather than being toned down by any studio bosses wishing to soften the approach of it.
"It’s based on a true story,’ replies Catherine, ‘and OK it might seem pretty extreme but then again, we didn’t make things up, so it’s fair to say that many of these things can happen in a 13 year old girl’s life."