Movies I Watched With My Mother: Thirteen (2003)

Tracy Freeman (a young Evan Rachel Wood) is about to start seventh grade. She lives with her older brother and their mom, an addict in recovery who makes ends meet by working as a hairdresser out of their house. For her part, Tracy is a straight-A student who doesn't seem like the troublemaker type.

But middle school is a hell of a thing. Buffeted by her chaotic home life and under the influence of her new friend Evie, Tracy starts stealing, doing drugs and having sex. While such a story could veer into salaciousness or, worse, after school special territory, Thirteen maintains an honesty and empathy for all the characters involved.

No small part of that honesty and empathy is thanks to Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the script when she was only fourteen and based Tracy loosely on herself. (Nikki also stars in the film as Evie.) The teenagers in Thirteen act like teenagers, for better and for worse. Evie and Tracy lay in the same bed, giggle like friends at a sleepover as they get high. ("Hit me harder!") Tracy could be annoying sometimes (as was I at that age), and I often wanted to shake her for screaming at her mom and causing her grief when her mom already had enough to deal with. But I never forgot that Tracy was powerless in many ways and in a lot of pain.

Her mom Melanie (Holly Hunter) does love her and is constantly doing hair to keep a roof over her family's heads. However, she doesn't set boundaries with people very well. A recovering addict friend of Melanie's repeatedly drops her daughter off for Tracy to babysit. Melanie's boyfriend just got out of a halfway house and Tracy has seen him get high. Is it any wonder that Tracy desperately needs to control something? Melanie isn't a bad person, but she is so concerned with helping everyone that she doesn't see the depth of Tracy's problems, even though they're right under her nose. (Maybe that's why it took so long for her to notice Tracy's self-harm scars, even though, as my mom pointed out "these girls wear short sleeves all the time.")

There are very few "bad people" in this movie. In Evie's stories of abuse the details don't always match up, but it's clear that she's been abused somehow and is not lying outright. Her guardian almost never appears; Evie latches onto Tracy and Melanie because she is desperate to be part of a loving family. She becomes quickly, extremely close with Melanie, even asking Melanie to adopt her.

Thirteen is absolutely uncomfortable viewing. But it's not exploitative and examines why its characters behave the way they do. The story asks us to empathize with them without excusing their actions. If you're in the mood for some discomfort, it's definitely worth a watch.