With the end of the first season of Euphoria, let’s travel back sixteen years ago to August 20th 2003, when Thirteen was released in theaters. In this new age, television shows like Euphoria aren’t just a cautionary tale for teens and their parents. They are an outlet, where teens and young adults connect to each other through shared experiences, shared search for identity, and their very real existential crises. But before Euphoria could make its debut and be so heavily accepted for the content it gracefully creates, and before television started conversations some people were too afraid to talk about, there were films like KIDS (1995) and Thirteen (2003.) These films, sometimes deemed exploitative, brought hidden struggles to light. They were supposed to get parents talking to their children, to inform adults, and to tell teens that they’re not alone – that they don’t experience these problems alone and therefore they have to talk about it. Did they succeed in their goals? Well, that’s very subjective, but one thing that’s for sure is they did gain a cult following with every new generation of teens, which only goes to show that these emotions and issues transcend with each decade. So, no matter how you feel, the goal may have been missed but the conversations will always be important.
Thirteen (2003) follows seventh grader Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), who spirals down the rabbit hole of sex, drugs, and self-harm when she starts hanging out with ‘bad girl’ Evie (Nikki Reed). When Tracy turns thirteen and begins her new school year she slowly begins to realize that some of her classmates have changed the way they behave, dress, and prioritize. When she is referred to as a “cabbage patch” by one of the girls she begins to feel the pressures of societal approval. She immediately goes home and asks her mom for new clothes to get the attention of Evie.
After one day of acceptance by Evie, Tracy has already stolen a wallet, shopped on Melrose, and had the biggest rush of adrenaline of her life. The subtle satisfactions of having the cool girl compliment her clothes, ask her to hang out and make jokes with her (not about her) show the deep-rooted need for teens to be accepted, to not be ostracized, and to not feel small. This is not to say that every teenager falls in this line, but a large scope does, whether there are deep-rooted issues at home or whether the pressures of teenage hierarchy become too much to bear.
Evie acts as a guide for Tracy- introducing her to new friends, experiences, and attention. This bond helps Tracy form a deep attachment to Evie, especially because her home life proves to never be a sanctuary for her to find real guidance and peace. Not only is Evie glued to Tracy’s side, Tracy’s father is completely absent whilst her mother (Holly Hunter) is a recovering addict who places more energy and trust into her recovery companions than her own children, and her brother, who has clear knowledge of the troubles his sister has found herself drowning in, chooses to call her derogatory names rather than reach out a saving hand. Tracy’s mom doesn’t discipline; she is afraid of her own daughter, and it is this familial dynamic which pushes Tracy and other children like her into the insidious arms of others.
Although it’s clear that Evie is a bad influence on Tracy from the moment they meet, what is truly admirable about the portrayal of these characters is that none of them are so easily placed in “good” or “bad” categories. Tracy has had her complications with her parents before Evie shows up, and even though Evie’s family history is never fully divulged, it’s not hard to decipher that she lacks even more love and guidance in her life than Tracy.
After the full year of debaucheries, Tracy has failed the seventh grade and her entire life of drugs and self-mutilation has been exposed. There is a small-yet-powerful scene when she looks at the audience and says: “I don’t even remember how to spell ‘photographer’”- signifying the possible brain damage and memory loss she has consequently gained. In the end, one can only hope that because Tracy’s mother now knows what’s been going on, she can help her daughter overcome her addictive lifestyle and get her back on the right track through guidance, nurturing, discipline, and the simple love of a parent.
Thirteen (2003) was actually co-written by Reed, alongside director Catherine Hardwicke. The messy recounts of neglectful parents, sniffing aerosol cans and getting piercings were the very real experiences of thirteen-year-old Reed and her friends. That is why, no matter how mishandled this film may be with triggers and provocative scenes (the scenes of self-harm can be very graphic), it is important to keep in mind that these moments are real. This is not some celebratory story of a life of partying.
The film is also Catherine Hardwicke’s directorial debut, and her vision of creating the film in the scope of a documentary or home video, rather than a theatric film, pulls the audience into believing the story is happening to someone we know. With Nikki Reed working on such a personal piece of work and the mother-daughter dynamic between Evan Rachel-Wood and Holly Hunter, this film puts the audience through a barrage of emotions. Just watching these women bare their vulnerability in some of the most honest ways makes this a must-watch. It leaves you wanting more insight into how Tracy recovered afterwards; we hear the immediate consequences, but the film ends on a cliffhanger note, leaving the audience to only hope that Tracy gets the help that she needs. It only causes further scrutiny, since the film acts as a cautionary tale that offers no resolution or help for its’ audience. The film’s most important lesson lies with the girls’ relationship with the adults in their lives, though. Through it all, none of the parents have the slightest idea of what their children are feeling, suffering through and overcoming, and when the time comes that the facts of their negligence are displayed before them, the only thing they do is point the finger at each other rather than themselves.
So, 16 years later, what have films like Thirteen offered to youths and what foundation have they formed for film and television today? Thirteen was created with an unclear target audience, but it survived because of its’ mission to educate and its’ ultimate relatability. Whether people are discussing characters they relate to or whether they’re sharing similar experiences, individuals are becoming more open to important conversations. Thirteen and content like it showed that the conversations were always there for younger generations to have and be there for each other, especially when the adults in their lives failed to be.