Sure, the midlife male critics who thumbs-upped Lilya 4-Ever are raving Thirteen‘s nubile dysfunction. But like gal-pal meditations from Heavenly Creatures to Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? to Mary Anderson’s young-adult creeper I’m Nobody! Who are You?, Catherine Hardwicke’s directorial debut is less a damozel-in-distress fetish flick than a bird-flipping plunge into coded girl-cult communication.
We first encounter Thirteen‘s central SoCal twosome in mid-whippet bed-bounce, convulsed in laughter, so high that their playful face-smacking is drawing blood. Their paroxysms are captured in handheld jolts, their buzz affirmed by a surging Mark Mothersbaugh track. When we flash back to Tracy and Evie’s introduction, power chords and zooms mimic their appraisal of each other’s body art: a navel piercing, a braceleted wrist, a thong-string, a glittered eyelid, blown-out bangs. A production design vet, Hardwicke has a deep sense of the significance of teen trinkets. Soon after this meeting, the older Evie (co-writer Nikki Reed) has rescued Tracy (Once and Again square peg Evan Rachel Wood) from her Barbies and bobby sox, and hauled her into the passing lane of acid, sex, and jacking Melrose stiz.
Though it’s being compared to Kids, Thirteen gives the lie to sensationalist Lord of the Flies factionalism. Tracy is close to her mom—Holly Hunter as a divorced hairdresser in recovery, “working the program” but still a sucker for her cokehead beau (Jeremy Sisto)—and Evie obviously longs for Tracy’s relative domestic security. Hardwicke creatively telegraphs the family’s economic straits: Hunter ecstatically buying Wood a knockoff designer shirt from a van; a kid-toting haircut client leaving a $2 tip (“they ate half the lasagna”); Hunter ripping out rotting linoleum in response to a family melee.
Even if the girls’ extended practice-kissing and three-way teases are gonna make this a male-gaze DVD must-have, they also scan as real-life options as porn and pleasure-pursuit continue to blur. It’s like in The Real Cancún, where the all-female makeouts are both performative porno-mimicry and a warmer alternative to banging the goofy studs. Similarly, in Thirteen, the loaded rituals of hetero sex, and even sexual betrayal, play a distant fiddle to female-friend erotics and mother-daughter love-swirl.
At its weirdest—and it is weird—Uptown Girls manages some X-chrom telepathy too. As you might suspect, this babysitting screwball is sort of the Freddy Vs. Jason of theater brattitude, with supposedly whimsical nouveau-poor princess Brittany Murphy forced to nanny eight-going-on-38-year-old I Am Sam survivor Dakota Fanning. Less Freaky Friday than just plain freaky, Girls locates Fanning’s “maturity” in a fear of germs that comes off as borderline psychotic, and Murphy’s childlike free spirit in her apparent inability to avoid walking into walls. A tired rom-com subplot involving an Aussie pop-fop fades as the girls bond over admissions of alienation. Their mutual neuroses are exorcised in a truly surreal Coney Island spin almost worthy of Hardwicke’s hopped-up head cases.