"Melodramatic representations of teenagers always bother me"

Three girls talk about the riveting, angsty movie "Thirteen" -- how they related to it, what seemed realistic, and what made them mad.

Published September 5, 2003 9:38PM (EDT)

I'm having a hard time remembering my 7th-grade year. "You wrote a lot in your journal," my mother said, when I asked her about it. "And cried a lot. And listened to the radio all the time." Oh, right. Maybe I'd blocked it out. Middle school, how I hated you: those ridiculous Skidz pants and Z. Cavaricci jeans; the mixture of pride and shame about getting A's; the humiliation of my complete inability to roller skate, which was the only thing to do on Friday nights in my small Kentucky town.

While I didn't spend my afternoons huffing computer cleaner and dropping acid in my neighborhood park when I was 13, I still related to Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), the angry, out-of-control teenager in writer-director Catherine Hardwicke's "Thirteen." Tracy's an overachiever in her Los Angeles middle school; she writes dark poetry and gladly helps her mother around the house ... until she starts 8th grade and decides she's sick of being in the nerdy group and of being her mother's "baby." She wants to be like Evie (Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the movie), because everybody in 7th grade wants to be like Evie: hot, fearless, multiply pierced, sought after by guys and envied by girls.

Tracy's brazen first experience with pickpocketing wins Evie over, and in a matter of days Evie has introduced Tracy to her brave new world of drugs, smoking, drinking, shoplifting and boys. Meanwhile, Tracy's mom, Mel (Holly Hunter) -- a super-hot young mom in A.A. who cuts hair for a living and dates a former coke addict -- can barely keep her own life together, let alone help Tracy with hers.

Like Hardwicke and Reed, who've touted "Thirteen" as a kind of family therapy for mothers and daughters, I assumed that most teen girls would find something in "Thirteen" to relate to. But the three New York City girls I spoke with about the movie -- who had never met before the screening -- proved me wrong. They found the film overly dramatic, the drugs and sex unrealistic, and the main characters disrespectful and annoying. Look, these girls said, we're not all drowning in despair. Adolescence isn't always that fragile.

And even though "Thirteen" was based on the experiences of actress Nikki Reed (Evie), these girls saw the film as more about adults' fears of teen life than teenagers' realities.

Kate, 15, loves anime, Asian culture, reading and fine arts; she attends Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights. Her parents -- a writer and a media consultant -- are married. She has a younger sister, Lucy.

Nikki, 15, the daughter of a middle school teacher and an elementary school teacher, is an only child who attends Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. She loves fashion and spent the summer at a writing workshop.

Thana, 14, is about to begin her freshman year at Poly Prep Country Day School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where she plays volleyball and hopes to work on the newspaper or yearbook. Thana's parents are divorced; an only child, she lives with her mother, who works at UNICEF.

We met in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to watch and discuss the movie.

You guys were saying that you felt the girls in the movie looked way too old to be 13, and that the casting felt unrealistic. Did their wild lifestyle feel unrealistic, too? Reviewers have focused on how "shocking" the movie is.

Nikki: It's not what the average teenager does.

Kate: I think the average teenager who does stuff has a beer and smokes marijuana with their friends. I don't think they're as extreme as the kids in this film.

Nikki: I know my parents would've sent me to a boarding school in a foreign country with no boys for 20 miles all around if I'd fallen into those habits. I think my parents would be brutal on me if they ever even saw signs of that behavior.

Thana: It definitely wouldn't have gone on that long if her mom was really paying attention.

Let's go through some of the specific things that happened in the movie. What about the cutting scenes? Did those seem realistic to you?

Thana: It seemed to me like Tracy was cutting herself every time something bad happened. I have a friend who cuts and I've had long conversations with her -- serious ones -- and it's definitely a reality. It's something that some people do to kind of get away from it all. Afterwards, it's like, Oh my God, I cut myself.

Kate: One of my friends cuts herself, sort of. In 6th grade she did and stopped, and it started up again recently. She says that she does it because it's the only thing that makes her happy now -- but she's clinically depressed. It probably is a way to deal with emotions you can't handle.

What about the fact that Tracy and Evie had that short lesbian interlude? Do you think that's something that happens among girlfriends?

Nikki: I thought it was very strange -- I'm kind of an uptight person -- but that scene in Evie's room when they were practicing kissing in this way that didn't look awkward -- I mean, I've been best friends with my best friend since 6th grade, and we practically live in each other's houses, but I could never even imagine doing something like that. Tracy was obsessed with Evie in kind of a really sick way.

Kate: Evie kept saying that she loved Tracy, and I felt like that wasn't explored enough. I can understand Tracy's feelings toward Evie more than I can Evie's toward Tracy, because Tracy obviously looked up to Evie.

Nikki: Evie was sexual with Tracy's mom, Mel, too. She kissed Mel on the lips. I mean, I don't have problems with homosexuality, and I have friends who are lesbian -- but I thought it was really uncomfortable considering it was Tracy's mother.

Kate: And moments earlier Tracy had walked in on Mel hugging Evie.

Nikki: It was just strange how Evie was all over Mel. She just seemed to cling to people in a sexual way rather than a loving way. I know that if one of my friends is crying I'll give her a hug and tell her it'll be OK, but there was a lot of touchy-ness between Tracy and Evie that seemed odd, and I think Mel probably should've noticed.

In your schools, are there a few popular girls who dominate?

Nikki: I thought the social dynamic of the school was weird. Like, you would envision the popular crowd being the peppy cheerleader types or the generally happy people who are elected homecoming queen. But I know people who do dress like Evie and Tracy -- not with their thongs hanging out of their pants -- but I've seen people who try to get that look, and other people tend to avoid them rather than worship them.

Thana: I definitely think that it's possible for people like Evie and Tracy to be popular, though. I don't think it's like that anymore, where the cheerleaders are the popular ones. At Poly, the whole grade is split up into a lot of groups. It's not like the movie. The people I immediately hang out with are certainly not my only friends. There are people in other cliques that I hang out with.

Kate: In my grade there was never really a popularity issue. There are a couple of girls who are generally athletic and most of the guys end up thinking they're the really hot girls in the grade. But it's still not the queen bee thing. It's just that most of the guys in the grade end up admiring those girls. It's not like there's one girl and the Tracys in the grade tried to be like her.

So there's nobody like Evie? The girl who's super hot, or the guy with the amazing house whose parents are always out of town...

Kate: Popularity has never been a big thing at Packer, at least in my grade. There are a few girls who are like Evie in that they're known as being hot, or easy. But it's not like, "She's hot, she's wearing that, so if I wear that, I'll be hot, too."

Nikki: Usually the hot girls at Stuy are the girls who have the most expensive clothing, instead of some cheap shredded thing.

Kate: Some people, before they talked to me or knew me at all thought I was a druggie because of the way I dress -- because I was artsy and often tired. But I don't do any drugs at all and I'm sort of against them. I guess maybe why I don't do drugs is that my parents were never that strict about not doing them. So I guess I never really felt a desire to disobey them. They were never like, "If we find you smoking or drinking we're going to cut off all your allowance and ground you." They're like, "If you do it, be safe and do it in your room at home." So there's not really a point.

Why do you think Evie and Tracy did so many drugs. To be cool? To escape?

Kate: One of my friends says that smoking pot and drinking for him is a way to let go. And it's the same thing for another one of my friends. It's a way for her to let go and stop worrying -- worrying about school, worrying about the fact that she doesn't have a boyfriend, or isn't getting an A in bio.

Nikki: I think there's a really vast difference between what people do when no one else is around and what people do with other people. I know people who've smoked pot in social situations but they're not locking themselves in their room and smoking a few joints out of despair.

Kate: That's when it gets bad, when you're doing it alone.

Did you find Tracy at all sympathetic?

Kate: The one time I felt really bad and really sympathized with her was when her mom was kissing her arm after she discovered all of her cuts. For some reason that was a really striking scene to me, because it seemed like something that would really happen if your mom loved you and you were in that situation.

Nikki: I just had so much trouble sympathizing with the characters. I really didn't like Tracy.

Kate: Neither did I. It was like, "Your mom made you pants! Be nice to her!"

Thana: I related to some of the stuff she was going through because one of my closest friends has gone through some similar stuff, so I've grown to understand her. Some things about Tracy really pissed me off, though. Like the pants part. She just wanted to hate her mom.

Did you think the movie was blaming Tracy's parents for her actions?

Nikki: I think the movie gives teenagers a bad name. I know the way I look at my mother ... I look up to her and see someone who's managed to pull together her life in a really good way. I take her advice really seriously. I just couldn't sympathize with someone who abused their mother like that.

Kate: Yes, there are kids who yell at their parents all the time, and yes, there are parents who give them good reason to, but more often that not, the people I know aren't constantly yelling at their parents.

Thana: Even the people that I know that may do drugs, they're not angry at their parents. It's something they keep to themselves. They won't tell their parents, "Listen, I'm depressed all the time and that's why I smoke pot." They don't have that kind of relationship. But it's not like they don't appreciate anything their parents do for them.

Do you think that the girls were making a conscious decision to try to look sexy, with their thongs and ripped shirts?

Thana: Yeah, they were advertising themselves.

Kate: I can't say that I'm not affected by media at all, because that's impossible, but I think Evie and Tracy were definitely portraying an image that had been fed to them by the media.

Did it seem to you that Tracy and Evie were using their sexuality to get certain things from people?

Kate: I think Evie's a power freak. And I think she was using the fact that she was 13 and had curves as a tool to get power. Sex is a tool to some extent.

Nikki: I think Evie used Tracy in some ways to get into her life and leech off her mother. And I think part of her slightly sexual behavior toward Tracy had something to do with that. That's how Evie usually gets things from people.

So, overall, it sounds like you guys didn't really relate to this movie.

Nikki: I had a lot of trouble trying to associate myself with the movie. I've seen people do one or two of these things, but I've never encountered somebody who's gone completely berserk. I had so much trouble believing this stuff, because my life is completely different from Tracy's. My parents have always been super-concerned about my life, and I've never really minded that.

Kate: I'm also surprised something really dangerous didn't happen.

Thana: Yeah, that's what I was thinking.

Kate: I was assuming one of them would get raped or would've overdosed or something.

When I saw "Thirteen," I thought about the movie "The Virgin Suicides." In that movie a family doctor asks the 13-year-old who attempts suicide why, and she says, "Obviously, doctor, you have never been a 13-year-old girl."

Kate: Melodramatic representations of teenagers always bother me. It's not like you come home and you're like, My life sucks! And you throw down your bag and think about taking pills. It's not like when you reach adolescence you suddenly have nothing to live for.

Thana: They make it seem like every 13-year-old is bipolar. And there are definitely those days where you come home and you want to be alone, but it's not like, I want to be alone and try to commit suicide.

Kate: Yeah, it's like, yes, puberty affects you, but it doesn't make you go crazy. We're all fascinated with stories like this to some extent. But it's not like every 13-year-old's life is like the movie.

By Whitney Joiner

Whitney Joiner is an editor at Seventeen magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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