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'Thirteen': The innovative indie flick you don't remember


Teen girl content has recieved more than its fair share of flack over the years. Trust me, I would know. I’ve gone to battle in defence of Mean Girls, Jane Austen, and Twilight more times than I can count, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. However, I’m not here to talk about any of those things today. I’m here to talk about the film that came before Twilight, and arguably shaped a significant amount of indie drama and cinematic trends throughout the 2000s and long after. I’m talking about Catherine Hardwicke’s 2003 directorial debut, Thirteen.

If Catherine Hardwicke sounds familiar to you, there’s a reason for that. Not only is she the director of the 2005 skater cult classic Lords of Dogtown, but she is most notably the director behind the first – and the best quality – of the Twilight films. People can say what they want about the overall execution of the Twilight franchise, but when you take a look at the sheer directorial talent that Hardwicke displays, it’s enough to make you curious about her origins. 

Simply put, it’s shot like an experimental indie film. Their budget was already small, but took further slashes after production started. But the abandon with which the project was treated allowed for a few unique qualities and experimentation: sweeping camera movements, casual group interactions between scripted dialogue, dutch angles, and of course, our favourite blue filter.

However, this wasn’t the first time Catherine Hardwicke leaned on these techniques to support a scrappy cast and a menial budget. The first time she made use of this was in her debut, Thirteen, a film co-written by Hardwicke herself and one of the lead actors of the film, Nikki Reed. The film was based on Reed’s own experiences as a teen and was written in just six days. 

Even though the passage of time has rendered this film a relic of the past for many—or even just a simple blip on the media timeline—Thirteen isn’t just a nostalgia trip for teen girls who came up in the 2000s. In fact, when we take a look at the mechanics of the film itself, we can see the way that its subtlety and candour revolutionised its place in indie film history.

“It takes women to tell female stories,” Nikki Reed says of the film. Similarly, Evan Rachel Wood, the other lead of the film, said: “I had a need in me, like Tracy, to just explode. And acting was something I did so that I could do that. I felt like I couldn’t do it anywhere else.” 

Over and over again, this is a running theme of the film and those that surround it in the cultural consciousness. The act of representing female friendship and the complicated dynamics within it is something that has been done before, but the added component of the time period and class dynamics add more layers that often didn’t appear in media like this. Both of the lead actresses were still teen girls themselves, and so much of the plot centres around them doing drugs, experimenting with boys, stealing, and otherwise getting into trouble, but all with this girlhood-like innocence that simply can’t go away.

Visually, the film also makes a lot of distinct choices. The blue filter that has become Hardwicke’s signature is there, giving the entire picture a sombre, artistic tinge. Not only does this impact the mood of the film overall, but it also gives off a sense of artistic intention, regardless of what is actually physically being shot. 

We can see the influence of these choices, both aesthetically and thematically, in so many films that came after it and continue to be made. The world of indie drama is filled with stories that blend darkness with the trials of girlhood. Really, this set the stage for Ladybird and Spring Breakers types we know and love today, and there’s something special in that.

In reality, the film isn’t all that raunchy. It’s simply the thematic juxtaposition that puts itself in that place, and that shows so much talent both in the writing and the production. If you’re itching to find a great indie drama you may have forgotten, maybe give Thirteen a watch. You’ll likely find that even if it’s about teenage girls, it’s a film that’s for everyone.

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