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Movie review: Smells like teen spirit: 'Thirteen' can be a real eye-opener

Movie Review "Thirteen" Fargo Theatre Rated R 100 minutes Three out of four stars "Thirteen" is not a teen movie. It is, in many ways, a horror film. Its subject is the emotional horrors of adolescence which it handles with honesty and pitch-perf...

Movie Review

"Thirteen"

Fargo Theatre

Rated R

100 minutes

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Three out of four stars

"Thirteen" is not a teen movie.

It is, in many ways, a horror film. Its subject is the emotional horrors of adolescence which it handles with honesty and pitch-perfect passion.

By now, the story of the film has passed into Hollywood lore. It was written by one of its actresses, Nikki Reed -- who turned 16 just this month -- and first-time director Catherine Hardwicke, based on experiences Reed had in junior high.

The plot centers on seventh-grader Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), a straight-A student who, like kids that age everywhere, longs for the popularity that good grades don't bring. She manages to make friends with Evie (Reed), the hottest, most popular girl in school.

But Evie is a baby black widow. She introduces Tracy to drugs, sex and petty theft and emotionally manipulates those she can't impress with her looks and charisma, like Tracy's mother, Melanie (Holly Hunter).

Tracy's metamorphosis follows a predictable path, from courting Evie with little misbehaviors to dumping her outmoded A-student friends to seeing her life fall apart. But Hardwicke escapes formula by keeping her film tightly focused on the girls, showing how they travel the road to hell in baby steps.

It doesn't always work. Hardwicke's camera work is a bit hyperactive; parts of the film look like the most ADD-oriented music video.

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But when it succeeds, it does so spectacularly.

For example, the first time Tracy actually meets Evie, the camera bounces around Tracy's body, scanning each of the baubles and bangles she wears just as Evie would. It's actually a little chilling.

Reed manages to flesh out Evie through the strength of her performance. Her seduction -- figuratively and literally -- of Tracy is subtle. She seduces a viewer as well. Her final betrayal of Tracy, which leads to a harrowing yet tender climax, has just enough surprise to resonate with any viewer who remembers a similar experience.

Hunter fully deserves the best supporting actress Oscar nomination she has received for the role. Her Melanie desperately wants to be a good mother, but she's so self-involved that she just doesn't have the tools.

She's the kind of person who can't see that an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is important, but sometimes not as important as meeting her child's desperate emotional need for attention. The best she can do is manage a flip comment before bolting out the door.

You simply want to slap Melanie up, until the film's ending. She finally gets it, but almost too late. A little postscript indicates that it may not have been in time after all, but the question is left open.

"Thirteen" is a difficult experience to sit through. There's a great deal of sexuality among young teenagers, although Hardwicke handles it with an honesty and restraint that keeps it from being exploitive. And the emotions get so raw at times that a viewer nearly wants to turn away, although it's never overplayed.

"Thirteen" is that most wonderful of things, a really honest piece of filmmaking. It's refreshing to see a movie that takes the time to look past the cutting to see the wounds.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

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