They say that the two worst years of a woman’s life are the year she is 13 and the year her daughter is.
We get to experience both at once in this film about a 7th grader named Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) who is catapulted into self-destructive behavior because she wants so badly to be accepted, to be cool, and to numb some of the pain of growing up. It was co-written by 13-year-old Nikki Reed, who plays the friend Tracy is so desperate to impress.
Tracy lives with her brother Mason (Brady Corbet) and their mother, Mel (Holly Hunter), a loving but damaged recovering alcoholic who does her best to support the family.
On the first day of 7th grade, there are always a couple of kids who really hit the puberty jackpot over the summer. Just as the rest are at their most clumsy, insecure, and vulnerable, those impossibly sure and golden kids appear to have arrived at the destination while everyone else is still trying to find the map.
Adults of any age are likely to still be carrying around the vision of their own perfect 7th grade classmates and how inadequate they felt by comparison. It somehow is not much comfort that not only did those kids themselves not feel as together as we thought, but that they were surpassed soon after by the late bloomers, who had to work a little bit to get there and thus have more staying power.
For Tracy, it is Evie (co-screenwriter Reed) who seems to have everything she desires. So when Evie introduces her to drugs (taking them and selling them), shoplifting, body-piercing, lying, and sex, it seems a small price to pay for feeling accepted or, to use a word that is only used about teen-agers or celebrities, “popular.”
Reed and first-time director/co-screenwriter Catherine Hardwicke have given this film great strengths — particularly its authenticity of detail (Hardwicke’s past career as a production designer really helps) and its genuine commitment, even tenderness, toward its subject matter. This really shows in the performances. Hunter is fearless in revealing Mel’s fragility, her generosity, and the deep, deep love for her children that grounds her. Wood (of television’s “Once and Again”) is breathtakingly open; every ounce of the joy and anguish she feels is in heart-breaking relief on her face. Wood shows us Evie’s wounded child inside the cool manipulator. The script has some particularly subtle and perceptive moments, especially when Tracy’s father keeps asking for the problem to be explained to him “in a nutshell.”
On the other hand, it would be nice if Tracy didn’t have to take on every single one of every parent’s worst nightmares; in addition to substance abuse, sexual involvement, lying, stealing, and failing in school, she develops an eating disorder and cuts herself. There are enough teenage problems in this movie to fill a decade’s worth of after-school-specials. But the film’s weaknesses are the weaknesses of youth and inexperience, and that is actually very appropriate for the subject matter.
Parents should know that the R rating comes from frank and explicit — but thoughtful — treatment of the subject matter. This is just another example of the failings of the MPAA rating system, because there are comedies that refer to all of the same issues that are rated PG-13. This movie is far better for teenagers because it deals forthrightly with the consequences of the behavior it depicts.
Characters constantly use very strong language. Teenagers engage in every possible self-destructive behavior — they smoke, take drugs, steal, lie, and pierce their tongues and belly buttons. They have sex that is so casual it is almost anonymous. There is also adult substance abuse and bad behavior. There are very tense family confrontations.
Families who see this movie should talk about how easy it was for Tracy to slip away from everything she had learned. Why was Evie’s friendship so important to her? Why was Tracy important to Evie? Why was it so hard for Mel to say no to anyone?
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Smooth Talk and Foxes.