Back to School #63: Thirteen (dir by Catherine Hardwicke)


Have you ever seen a film and thought to yourself, “Oh my God, that’s my life?”

That’s the way I always feel whenever I see the 2003 film Thirteen.  Thirteen is one of my favorite movies but I always get uncomfortable whenever I watch it because a lot of the film hits really close to home for me.  Thirteen tells the story of 13 year-old Tracy (played, in an amazing performance, by Evan Rachel Wood) who, after befriending Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed, who also co-wrote the script along with director Catherine Hardwicke), goes wild.  Soon, Tracy is shoplifting, self-harming, experimenting with drugs and sex, and striking out at her mother, Melanie (Oscar nominee Holly Hunter).

As played by Hunter, Melanie is probably one of the best moms to ever show up in a contemporary film.  I’m tempted to say that Hunter’s performance here is the American equivalent to Sophia Loren’s work in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women.  Melanie is not portrayed as being perfect.  Instead, she’s a recovering alcoholic who is dating a former drug addict (played by Jeremy Sisto) and she doesn’t always say the right thing and sometimes she does wish that she could just be selfish and not have to deal with her rebellious daughter.  When Evie, claiming that she’s being abused at her own home, literally moves in with Tracy, Melanie instinctively knows that Evie is a bad influence but she can’t bring herself to turn her away.  And yet, for all the mistakes that she makes, Melanie is still a good mom.  She loves her daughter and finally proves that she’s willing to sacrifice her own happiness to try to save Tracy.  Off the top of my head, I can’t tell you who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress of 2003, but it should have gone to Holly Hunter.

Thirteen was the directorial debut of one of my favorite director, Catherine Hardwicke.  Hardwicke doesn’t get the critical respect that she deserves, largely because she directed the first Twilight.  (Twilight, however, is not a badly directed film.  The trouble is with the source material, not Hardwicke’s direction.)  With Thirteen, Hardwicke approaches the film with a matter-of-fact directness that keep the movie grounded and prevents it from going over-the-top with its nonstop parade of delinquent behavior.

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It’s a difficult film for me to watch because, when I was thirteen, I basically was Tracy.  I was angry at my Dad for leaving us and a part of me blamed my mom but an even bigger part of me blamed myself.  Like Tracy, I felt as if I had been abandoned and I felt as if control of my life was out of my hands.  I resented the life that I imagined I would never get to live and so, I went out of my way to make sure that everyone knew that I didn’t need them but they certainly needed me.  I struck out in whatever way I could and, looking back at it now, I know that, basically from the ages of 13 to 17, I caused a lot of unneccessary pain to the people who loved me.

Thirteen captures all of that perfectly and, therefore, it’s not easy for me to watch.  But, at the same time, I’m always glad after I do watch it because I know that I turned out okay and that gives me hope that, despite the film’s ambiguous ending, Tracy will turn out okay as well.

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Back to School #50: Clueless (dir by Amy Heckerling)


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By their very nature, teen films tend to get dated very quickly.  Fashions, music, and cultural references — all of these serve to make a film popular when it’s first released and occasionally laughable just a few years later.  Take 1995’s Clueless for instance.  Watching it now, it’s impossible not to get a little snarky when Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) refers to a hot guy as being a “Baldwin.”  When heard today, it’s hard not to wonder if Cher is thinking of beefy rageaholic Alec or ultra-religious realty TV mainstay Stephen.  (Personally, I prefer to think that she was thinking of Adam Baldwin.)

Clueless is one of those films that I always remember watching on TV and loving when I was little but, whenever I watch it now, I always find myself feeling slightly disappointed in it.  It’s never quite as good as I remember and, with each viewing, I’m just a little bit more aware that, while both were very well-cast in their respect roles, Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash weren’t exactly the most versatile actresses of their generation.  There’s a reason why Dash is now a political commentator and Silverstone is best known for that video of her spitting food into her baby’s mouth.  As well, watching the film now, it’s hard not to think about how the talented Brittany Murphy would tragically pass away 14 years after its initial release.

And yet, I can’t help it.  I still enjoy Clueless.  I could spend hours nitpicking it apart and pointing out what parts of it don’t quite work as well as they should but ultimately, Clueless is a fun movie that features and celebrates three strong female characters, which is more than you can say for most teen films.

Directed and written by Amy Heckerling (who earlier directed the classic Fast Times At Ridgemont High), Clueless is based (quite directly) on Jane Austen’s Emma.  In this version, Emma is Cher, the spoiled 16 year-old daughter of a lawyer (played, very well, by Dan Hedaya), who lives in Beverly Hills and who is happy being superficial, vain, and popular.  In fact, the only person who ever criticizes Cher is her stepbrother, Josh (Paul Rudd), who is studying to be an environmental lawyer and is visiting during a break from college.

When Cher plays matchmaker and deftly manages to pair up two of her teachers (played by Wallace Shawn and Twink Caplan), she realizes that she enjoys helping people.  (Though, it must be said, the only reason she helped her two teachers wass because they were both taking out the misery of being single on her…)  So, Cher and her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) decide to help another student, new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy), become popular.  After giving Tai a makeover, forbidding her to date skater Travis (Breckin Meyer, who is adorable), and trying to set Tai up with rich snob Elton (Jeremy Sisto), Cher is shocked to discover that Tai has become so popular that she is now challenging Cher’s social status.  Even worse, Tai decides that she has a crush on Josh right around the same time that Cher realizes the same thing.

Plus, Cher still has to pass her driving test…

As I said before, Clueless is hardly a perfect film but it is a very likable movie.  Director Amy Heckerling creates such a vivid and colorful alternate teenage universe and the script is full of so many quotable lines that you can forgive the fact that the story sometimes runs the risk of getting almost as superficial of Cher.  It may never be quite as good as I remembered it being but Clueless is still an entertaining and fun movie.

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Embracing the Melodrama #52: The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (dir by Asia Argento)


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Based on a controversial collection of short stories by JT LeRoy (which was a pen name used by the writer Laura Albert), The Heart is Deceitful About All Things covers three years in the life of Jeremiah and his dug addict mother Sarah.  Over the course of the film, Jeremiah is played by thee different actors — Jimmy Bennett at age 7 and, at age 10, Cole and Dylan Sprouse.  Sarah is fearlessly played by the film’s director, Asia Argento.

Partially in response to her extremely religious upbringing, Sarah spends most of her time drinking, smoking meth, and moving from man to man, the majority of whom treat both her and her son badly.  It looks like things are going to get better when Sarah marries the seemingly stable Emerson (Jeremy Renner) but, when Sarah suddenly abandons both her husband and her son so that she can go to Atlantic City, Emerson rapes Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is sent to live with his grandfather (Peter Fonda) and grandmother (Ornella Muti) who, it turns out, are members of an ultra-religious cult.  Thought Jeremiah initially manages to bond with his cousin Buddy (Michael Pitt), life in the cult proves to be no safer than life with his mother.  After three years with the cult, Jeremiah is standing on a street corner and yelling that everyone is going to go to Hell unless they repent when he is suddenly approached by Sarah.  Sarah grabs him and carries him over to a nearby truck that is being driven by her current boyfriend.

Sarah now supports herself as a dancer and as a prostitute.  When she realizes that the presence of her son is making men reluctant to pay for her, Sarah grows out Jeremiah’s hair and starts to dress him in her old clothes so that she can pass him off as being her younger sister.

Eventually, Sarah and Jeremiah find themselves living with amiable but slow-witted meth addict Jackson (Marilyn Manson) and that’s when things really start to head down hill…

In some ways, The Heart Is Deceitful About All Things is a difficult film to recommend because it is so extremely dark and depressing.  Much as in her debut film, Scarlet Diva, Asia Argento refuses to compromise on the bleakness of her vision.  She set out to make a realistic portrait of what it’s like to live on the fringes of American society and that’s exactly what she did.  If the end result is depressing…well, the fringes aren’t exactly a happy place.  In the end, you’re actually happy that the film is full of familiar actors like Argento, Michael Pitt, Peter Fonda, and Winona Ryder because you need that reminder that, ultimately, you’re watching a movie and that everyone was able to go home after they finished filming.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things may not be easy to enjoy but it is a film that, as a result of its uncompromising vision,  ultimately wins your respect.

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