We owe our girlhood to Catherine Hardwicke

We owe our girlhood to Catherine Hardwicke

Twilight will never be forgotten, but this year it's Catherine Hardwicke's 2003 film Thirteen that stands out as a blueprint for girlhood on screen. Carly Mattox writes on the seminal 20th anniversary.

If Catherine Hardwicke could be considered an auteur, the argument would certainly favor one specific film with blue hues and stilted performances: 2008’s Twilight, a film which for better or worse launched two stars still blazing and became part of every teenage girl’s memetic lexicon. Hardwicke became a household name; the film was widely panned, and the director declined to return or direct any franchise sequels. If Hardwicke’s name has now become synonymous with the genre of teen coming-of-age drama, it has more to do with Twilight than with her debut film Thirteen, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and remains just as influential. 

Throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s, there were diverting paths of the teen movie: the first involved slapstick comedy, bright colours, and a certain detachment from reality. These films include Bring It On (2000), Mean Girls (2004), and Crossroads (2002) and the less mainstream satires Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) and Jawbreaker (1999). Replete with dream sequences and drenched in a Y2K aesthetic which is on trend again in 2023  we codified these films as landmarks of the era, returning again and again to them until they became part of our cultural canon. On Wednesdays, we wear pink.

But another thread of teen films favoured a harsher aesthetic, less mainstream and playful, more visceral. In April 1999, a mass school shooting occurred in the town of Columbine, Colorado, leaving 15 dead including twelve students, one teacher, and the perpetrators, as well as 24 wounded. The event shocked the nation. Suddenly, the American high school was a place of horror and paranoia, already at the frontline of national politics, and the conversation turned toward the topic of bullying and peer pressure rather than gun violence. Filmmakers responded in kind; Gus Van Sant’s heavily lauded Elephant (2003) takes its title from Alan Clarke’s own 1989 film of the same name, also borrowing its quietly minimalist approach to violence. Likewise, Ben Coccio’s Zero Day (2003) is directly inspired by the events of Columbine. Compounded with the collective trauma of 9/11, teen movies began to focus on suburban malaise and tend toward realism, even to the point of brutality, such as in Bully (2001), L.I.E. (2001), and Ken Park (2002). This wave of films laid our own paranoia bare, rendered in harsh desaturation and representative of an entire nation struggling to understand itself.  

Hardwicke managed to navigate the knife’s edge of drama and comedy, exaggeration and realism; Thirteen was made for a threadbare two million dollars, but a low budget and a handheld camera worked in the favour of a director who preferred an intimate proximity to her actors. The film follows thirteen-year-old Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), eager to become friends with the popular girl in school Evie (Nikki Reed). Tracy soon falls into a bitter spiral of drug use, reckless sex, violence and crime as she becomes inseparable with Evie. All this while Tracy’s mother Melanie (Holly Hunter) fights for her daughter’s innocence, with Tracy’s soul seemingly caught in the balance. 

The film opens with a shot of Tracy, drawing attention to Evan Rachel Wood’s wide, innocent blue eyes as she is sitting on her bed and smiling; pictures of boy bands and stuffed teddy bears out of focus are behind her, and she is surrounded. A hand comes into frame and slaps her across the face, to her own embellished amusement; we cut to a wide shot of the two girls, sitting together, the other holding a can of inhalant. They exchange slaps of increasing force until Evie strikes Tracy on the lip and draws blood. Coming of age is a violent process, this introduction says it is a sudden and forceful thing. We do not – cannot – survive with our girlhood intact.

Thirteen deconstructs female friendship beyond its typical dichotomy of catty and cutesy; there is real, tangible chemistry between Wood and Reed, one which extended beyond the rolling cameras; the two began to dress like each other while filming, which Hardwicke encouraged. However, the beating heart of the film is the mother-daughter relationship. Hunter’s performance imbues every scene with warmth, even as Tracy is screaming, crying, pounding, fighting her mother’s embrace. We want them to reconcile; we need the catharsis of reconciliation as much as the characters do. The adolescent rupture of mother and daughter can be traumatic, and Hardwicke refuses to shy away; the camera rarely gives the performers, or the audience, space to breathe.

Part of Thirteen’s success lies in its script, co-written by Hardwicke and Reed, upon whose life the film was based. Rather than exploit Reed’s story, Hardwicke considered the then-fifteen-year-old a surrogate daughter, the two becoming longtime collaborators; Reed would later star in several of Hardwicke’s films, including as Rosalie in the Twilight franchise. Thirteen, with the same themes of peer pressure and popularity as the aforementioned Mean Girls or Jawbreaker, could have been a trite afterschool special, but having a real teenager co-write the script means the dialogue is raw and true. “It felt more like a feeling than anything else,” Holly Hunter said, upon receiving the script. “It sort of declares itself, it comes at you.”

Thirteen debuted at Sundance and won the Silver Leopard at Locarno, rewarding a director’s first feature, which seemingly heralded Hardwicke as a bright new voice on the independent film scene. However, the film had its detractors; Manohla Dargis at the Los Angeles Times considered the film to be an “arty exploitation flick, first-time director Catherine Hardwicke [cranked] up the volume to maximum shriek.” These same criticisms are echoed in those who criticize the original Channel 4 series of Skins in 2007, and even today’s tentpole of teenage debauchery, Euphoria. When demonstrating the reality of teenagers’ lives, it is a difficult tightrope to walk between exposé and exploitation; however, in integrating Reed herself in the filmmaking process, Hardwicke ensured the safety of her subjects, an example not all filmmakers have chosen to follow.

In her review of Thirteen, Dargis says the story about “a girl martyred on the cross of reckless youth is as old as Joan of Arc’s.” With this quote, I am reminded of Kent L. Brintnall’s essay on cinematic violence, “Tarantino’s Incarnational Theology: ‘Reservoir Dogs’, Crucifixions and Spectacular Violence.” As its title suggests, Brintnall focuses on the spectacle of masculine violence; in the essay, however, he says, “To make an ethical demand, violence cannot be fantastic; theatrical, cartoonish violence is too easily deflected and dismissed.” If we choose to avert our eyes, then we also refuse to share our compassion for the subject. Brintnall narrows his vision to the work of Quentin Tarantino, but I believe his argument also extends to this so-called “exploitation” of teenagers in films like Thirteen, in television shows like Skins. The reality of girlhood is a violent one; so, too, should our response to it be.

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