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Lessons parents will learn from watching Thirteen: if your daughter gets a belly-button ring, she’s probably having sex; if she starts screaming at you, she’s probably doing whippets; if she starts cutting up her clothes, she’s probably cutting up her body; and if she’s dating a black boy, she’s probably having sex, doing whippets, and cutting up her body probably all in one day, but not necessarily in that order. Then again, maybe we should give parents more credit than that. But we won’t.

Like the club-kid docu-drama Kids before it, Thirteen is a very real depiction of what life is like for a small faction of America’s teenagers. And just as it did with Kids, the media will trumpet—and already has trumpeted—warnings from the mountaintops that the film should be taken as a wake-up call to parents. The fact is that most parents these days are so uninvolved in their children’s lives that when the television (or movie screen) tells them what they’re kids are doing, they have no choice but to believe it.

Take the lovely ladies of The View, for example, who reasoned that the film provided justification for the recent glut of high-tech parental snoopery. Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the script and plays bad influence/temptress Evie in the film, argued that invading your teen’s privacy would be counterproductive and that Thirteen wasn’t intended to be a “wake-up call” in a general sense. She’s well aware that her story is just that: hers. The sexy Reed, now 17, looked exactly the same at age 13, which might explain why Evie and her new best friend Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) look and act, at the very least, like high school sophomores and not seventh graders.

Age specifics and gripes aside, the story is one of brutal honesty, and Reed and Wood give stellar performances as two friends attempting to measure their self-worth up against their peers and each other. Wood plays the innocent yet cool honor-roll student just as expertly as she does the resentful, self-mutilating teen vixen. In one scene, she subtly guilt-trips her mother when she tries to talk to her while she’s on the telephone: “It’s my father,” Tracy says, the phone tucked between her face and shoulder, closing the door in her mother’s face. Holly Hunter, in the role of Tracy’s recovering alcoholic, recovering-cokehead-dating hairstylist mother, is both touching and authentic. “I’m not allowed to see your body anymore?” she asks. Her character doesn’t know whether to be a friend or a mom, which is a thin, blurry line most mothers tread every day.

This theme of body ownership envelops the entire film. While the motivations for Tracy’s seemingly overnight transformation are vague at best, director Catherine Hardwicke evokes the desperate sadness and the warm, briefly gratifying payoff of “cutting” with painful accuracy. Even more moving is the film’s final scene, in which Hunter refuses to let Tracy go despite her pleas and begins to kiss her daughter’s bloodied arm, giving Tracy the one thing she so desperately needs, and the one thing many parents seem to forget about in their quest to control and/or monitor their children: real human contact.

DVD | Soundtrack
Fox Searchlight Pictures
100 min
Catherine Hardwicke
Catherine Hardwicke, Nikki Reed
Evan Rachel Wood, Holly Hunter, Nikki Reed, Jeremy Sisto, Brady Corbet, Deborah Unger, Sarah Clarke, Kip Pardue