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Youth Gone Wild

Teen saga provides wake-up call

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In all truly great teen films, the adults share a measure of blame in the rapid, often horrific descent of their progeny. Whether piercing and coke snorting in our age, or hotrodding and heavy petting in days gone by, the song remains the same. It was the gender flip-flop of dad wearing an apron and mom wearing the pants that did James Dean wrong in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause.

It's a broken home and parents who never advanced beyond their own extended adolescence that, in part, sends ballistically rebellious teen Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), plummeting into a drug-dazed oblivion in Catherine Hardwicke's drama Thirteen. The film is a dramatic high-colonic to preconceived notions of what teens are "up to" that feels just as often like a wake-up call to an out-of-whack age.

Good girl Tracy hangs with the nerdy girls at an inner-city public California high school but becomes fixated on the school's charismatic bad girl Evie (Nikki Reed). Written by co-star Reed and based on her own experiences as a superfast California teen, Thirteen benefits from the realism of Reed's touch, but also from Hardwicke's older and wiser ability to sniff out interesting themes that lurk beneath the girls-gone-wild crash-up.

Tracy begins the film writing a poem that barely registers on the consciousness of her divorced, financially struggling mother Melanie (Holly Hunter). She soon grabs Mom's attention though, but good, with increasingly reckless and provocative behavior. Sexuality is power, the film understands, an intoxicating but dangerous formula for teenage girls weaned on a media culture that says sex is their only bargaining chip. Hardwicke's relentlessly roaming camera takes in the heart-racing pace of Evie and Tracy's drug snorting and shoplifting, and her quick-swish pans of billboards, bus station posters and groaning shelves of merchandise with "Porn Star" T-shirts illustrate how every spasm of female sexuality is directed into the on-your-knees variety.

Thirteen is also a smart enough film to see that the sexual torrent Evie unleashes in Tracy is only tangentially about boys. Sex, drug-dealing and a practiced, giddy nonchalance are all just games of one-upmanship practiced between Evie and her protege Tracy, as their friendship moves from a hilarious appraisal of each other's wardrobes (in a scene Hardwicke shoots like a Western square-off) to full-fledged, joined-at-the-waist adoration. In Hardwicke's estimation, sexual experimentation is the same kind of female thrill-sport as chickie runs for the boys of Rebel's teen-age.

It is all about girls in Thirteen, both the addictive, escalating "fun" Evie's wild life offers to Tracy, and the equally destructive degeneration of Tracy's relationship with her mother, played expertly with a mixture of infuriating, hip-mom neediness and wounded, maternal agony by Hunter.

Tracy has been abandoned by her self-absorbed dad but, more painfully, she has been emotionally abandoned by Melanie, who's distracted by an on-again, off-again relationship with a recovering cokehead boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto). Melanie aspires to the kind of teen hipness that dominates the mass media, too, and thus never protests too loudly when Tracy begins dressing in thong-displaying jeans or smoking her mother's cigarettes. There is an air of competitiveness to how easily Tracy brushes aside her mother -- who is more a competitor for sexual attractiveness with her daughter than a symbol of parental authority.

Thirteen will titillate many just looking for the next Kids or Bully shocker about teen libidos on the loose, but its study of complex human chemistry reveals it as far deeper than some Larry Clark Mondo Teeno. The movie is also laser-accurate for showing the disturbing role reversal that addiction creates in families, as child and parent do a Freaky Friday. Melanie is a former addict whose constantly monitored recovery makes her focus relentlessly on her own emotional well being. The adults in Thirteen are a uniformly sad lot: amateur therapists and cosmetic surgery-addicted beauties in search of perpetual youth or recovering users neck-deep in self-absorbed therapy culture.

With its frantic, constant hyperactivity, Hardwicke's pain-and-pleasure borne camera conveys the emotional breakers of Tracy's life. High, furious, dieting, hungry for the next adventure, Tracy's bursting-at-the-seams flesh and consciousness live in Hardwicke's impressive, vivid debut film.

Felicia Feaster is a film critic for Atlanta's Creative Loafing.

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