Child’s Play

Mother Knows Best: Holly Hunter and Evan Rachel Wood in ThirteenPhoto: Anne Marie Fox

Every generation has its Rebel Without a Cause–style youth movies that are meant to tell it like it is. The latest entry in the what’s-the-matter-with-kids-today sweepstakes is Thirteen, which is being touted as “true” partly because it was co-written by its co-star, Nikki Reed, who was actually 13 when the film was conceived. No doubt she provided nuances and details that her director and co-writer, Catherine Hardwicke, would have missed on her own, but this doesn’t mean we must buy into the notion that the film is definitive. A teenage collaborator, along with a microbudget and jittery camerawork, doesn’t ensure youth-pic realism.

Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) is a pretty, blonde, middle-class seventh-grader who at the beginning of the movie still has her Barbie dolls; she also writes impressive poetry that reveals a disturbing inner life. In other words, she’s on the cusp of young-adulthood. With alarming speed, she ditches her studious, well-behaved girlfriends and takes up with the class hottie, Evie (Reed), and her posse. Pretty soon, Tracy is boozing, doing drugs, committing petty theft, and getting her tongue pierced (in a real ouch of a scene). Evie, avoiding an abusive home situation, moves in with her friend amid the mounting concerns of Tracy’s mom, Melanie (Holly Hunter). “This is not how I raised you,” she protests, but Melanie is harried and distracted, with a recovering-addict boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto), and her ex-husband is too busy working his cell phone to have a heart-to-heart with his daughter. And so, as in so many other youth pics, the parents are made to take a hefty portion of the rap for the way things have turned out.

Decadent movie and fashion-advertising imagery also share the blame. When we see Tracy looking wide-eyed at sex-pot billboards on Sunset Boulevard, we are supposed to recognize that our kids, the progeny of the Hustler generation, are wallowing in muck. There’s lots of finger-pointing in Thirteen, but the film itself is not that far away from what it’s attacking. In the manner of such voyeuristic Larry Clark movies as Kids, it’s both socially conscious and sensationalistic—a scold in tight, midriff-baring tee and spiked heels. Do the filmmakers really care about Tracy as a character and not just as a type? Although initially she is shown to be a gifted writer and a good student, we learn almost nothing about what formed her or what she reads or how her disturbances found poetic expression. Tracy’s boyfriend is black, but the film barely explores the racial or ethnic implications of this for Tracy, or how class issues might play a part in her rebellion; we don’t even have a clear picture of what it’s like for Tracy to participate in her English class. Once she falls in with the wrong crowd, which is quickly, the “good” Tracy fades away, and we are left with only one half of the double life she is supposed to be leading.

“A teenage collaborator, along with a microbudget and jittery camerawork, doesn’t ensure youth-pic realism.”

Well, sort of. The movie’s prevailing sentiment is that Tracy is jailbait who only wants to be loved. She preys on her mother’s weaknesses because she wants to provoke a response—she wants to be cared for. Everything in this movie is targeted, in the end, to strike a “positive” message. It is to the credit of Holly Hunter that, in her scenes with Wood, she brings out the frustrations of a mother who is trying to be both a friend and a role model and succeeding at neither. The volatility of Tracy’s mood swings has made Melanie punch-drunk, and this strikes a recognizable chord. So does the way Tracy and Evie quickly become practiced, straight-faced liars. (The young actresses have an easy rapport.) Throughout the movie, one is kept off-balance about what in these girls is “normal” rebelliousness and what is pathological, and that is as it should be.

But Thirteen doesn’t really offer much more insight into exasperated mother-daughter relationships or twisted teens than, say, Freaky Friday, which I much prefer. At least that film was funny and didn’t try to fob itself off as a bulletin from the front lines.

Kevin Costner’s Open Range is a lot better than his last directorial effort, The Postman, a movie so extravagantly awful that he still hasn’t climbed out from under it. Costner has a weakness for bland grandiosity, and often in Open Range, as in Dances With Wolves, he seems to think that simply by shooting beautiful scenery he can create a classic. But the vistas are gorgeous, and the end-of-an-era lonesome-cowboy stuff has a cornball resonance. Costner plays a free-grazer—a wandering cowboy who lives off the land with his cattle—and Robert Duvall is his best buddy and father surrogate. They spend a lot of time being soft-spoken and acting manly—in this movie, as in most Westerns, it amounts to the same thing. This is the kind of film where two characters can ride together for ten years before they finally fess up and reveal their real first names to each other. When a woman enters the picture—a nurse played by Annette Bening—we’re aware of just how civilizing an influence she is on the men. This, too, is a classic Western pose.

In fact, just about everything in this movie has its antecedent: a little bit of Shane here, a chunk of High Noon there, and so on. And yet it’s all rather pleasing, in a regressive sort of way. Costner may think he’s breathing new life into a moribund genre, but what he’s really doing is flattering himself by cooking up as many homages as he and his screenwriter, Craig Storper, can accommodate. He’s measuring himself against the masters. But the greatest Westerns aren’t this self-consciously mythic. Nor are they so shamelessly sappy: Not only does the cowboys’ pet dog get shot, but Costner rescues another pooch from drowning. What rescues the movie is Costner’s low-key charisma, which remains sturdily intact despite a dreadful spate of recent clinkers. He’s always at his best when he’s a little ornery, and Duvall is the same way. His grizzled performance is so thoroughly in character that he even chews as if it were 1882.

Child’s Play