Youth Culture Window


Many of us who work in youth ministry have heard the hype about the 2003 movie “Thirteen,” now on video and DVD. Newspapers reviewed it as “a wake up call to parents today.” The buzz on the street was that this was the movie for moms and teenage daughters to see together and discuss. Movie reviews didn’t disagree with the hype. USA Today gave it four out of four stars, the film was highly praised at Sundance where the director Catherine Hardwicke grabbed a director award, and Holly Hunter was nominated for best supporting actress at the Academy Awards.

Some Christian reviewers haven’t responded the same. Focus on Family’s “Plugged in” argues “Who needs a film that glamorizes the lifestyle without offering solutions or even bothering to show the brutal consequences?” Other Christians were appalled at the onscreen make out sessions, drug use and graphic language.

So is the film worth seeing?

It depends. (Vague enough for ya?)

Okay, for those that want the quick answer …

Who should see it?


      • Someone wanting mere entertainment? No


      • Parents of teens and preteens? Yes


      • Youth workers? Yes


      • Kids at a sleep over? No way


      • Thirteen year olds? No, with a few exceptions


      Seventeen year olds? Maybe with their parents, if followed with discussion

    Now, for those who want to go a little deeper than that …

    Most people who saw this film were “disturbed” with what they saw. That’s understandable, since that’s what the director intended. Before the film was even penned, Director Catherine Hardwicke was personally “disturbed” when she saw the life of a sweet little 12 year old neighbor girl begin to change before her eyes. This bright, innocent tween started becoming “angry and rebellious.” By age 13 she was a different person. Hardwicke began spending time with the young rebel, looking for a way to connect with her and channel her energies toward something positive. They embarked on a project together, a screenplay about the pressures and changes a 13 year old girl goes through, and the direction her choices could take her—the screenplay for “Thirteen.”

    This film is a “tragedy.” I don’t use the word tragedy to mean “a lame film,” but a tragedy in the literary sense, like Hamlet. It is a story where we see the rise and fall of the central character. Thirteen could be compared to Ted Demme’s 2001 movie, “Blow,” with Johnny Depp. We witness the central character go down a road that seems attractive on the surface (With “Blow,” it was money, getting high, and pretty girls. With “Thirteen,” it was popularity, sex, and drugs.), but it eventually leads to misery. Both films end with the central character having little hope, sitting at rock bottom.

    “Thirteen” was not made for mere entertainment. It is not a family movie, and it’s not a fun date flick. It’s a thought provoker.

    “Thirteen” will do two things:
    1. It will give you a glimpse at youth culture today.
    Does “Thirteen” truthfully represent today’s culture? Absolutely. Does “Thirteen” give a realistic glimpse at the pressures that thirteen-year-olds face today? Yes. All thirteen year olds? No. The film specifically follows one character’s path, a thirteen-year-old girl named Tracy. Tracy lives in a single parent home with a mom that really tries to do a good job parenting Tracy and her brother. But we quickly learn that there are cards stacked against Tracy: the split family, financial struggles, an absent father, the mother’s live-in boyfriend straight from rehab, and a mother who, despite her noble efforts, is a recovering alcoholic.

    Tracy faces a realistic struggle that thirteen-year-old girls face today- the struggle to fit in, to be popular, and to be liked by the opposite sex. We also see new pressures that we won’t find in John Hughes’ 1985 hit “The Breakfast Club.” Thongs stretching out of low-rise jeans, tongue rings, and the mainstream pressure to dress like a prostitot(Click here to look that word up in our teen lingo dictionary) These are modern day realities. Time magazine reported that last year alone, girls between the ages of 13 and 17 spent $152 million on thong underwear. Our kids may or may not give in to these pressures, and our kids may not live in Tracy’s environment, but our kids share the hallways and locker-room with Tracy.

    The movie has more of an impact when you find out that the costar of the film, Nikki Reed, is that little girl who lived next to the director Catherine Hardwicke and co-wrote the film. Reed, 14, plays Evie, the thirteen-year-old, beautiful, popular troublemaker who leads Tracy astray. Reed developed the characters of Tracy and Evie from many of her life experiences as a 12 and 13 year old. It’s fascinating to hear her commentary in the DVD as she shares about her “transformation” from a sweet girl with good grades to a rebellious thirteen-year-old flunky, influenced by wrong friends like Evie.

    2. It will make you think about choices we make as parents.
    Holly Hunter brilliantly plays the role of the struggling mom, daily faced with decisions of, “Should I let her go out with her friends to the mall by themselves?” “How late is too late?” “Am I smothering her, or giving her too much space?”

    The film especially made me think about the friends that my kids choose. Nikki is basically the “Eddie Haskel” of the new millennium. Take Eddie Haskel, mix him with Madonna’s sexuality and Christina Aguilera’s discernment … and you’ve got Evie. She knows how to put on the right mask in every situation to get what she wants.

    Throughout the film I found myself sympathizing with Tracy’s mother. The girls were slowly pulling the wool over her eyes, and even though we saw the writing on the wall, she didn’t. And many youth workers are far too wise to dismiss this “blindness” as unrealistic because we have personally witnessed it too many times with the parents of kids in our own ministry.

    The bad side-effects of “Thirteen”
    How do you show a realistic, thought-provoking snapshot of the depravity in our society without glamorizing it? Good question. And the answer isn’t as simple as, “film A glamorizes sex,” and “film B doesn’t.” Those factors vary with perception. Not to mention, most of these films I call “tragedies” follow the typical outline of: rise to the top … crash and burn! I know when I went to see the film “Blow,” I leaned over to my buddy 30 minutes into the film and sarcastically said, “Okay, I’m convinced. I want to deal drugs!” At 30 minutes into “Blow,” life was looking pretty good for the drug dealer. But then we witnessed the inevitable fall.

    The problem is, youth are watching these films and they don’t necessarily get the message. I remember when the gang film “Menace to Society” came out in the early 90’s. I worked with a rough group of kids, many who were “wanna-be’s or kids who had gang-banger friends. I saw the film when it was released and loved the message. The film showed Caine, a teenaged boy who flirted with gang life, claiming that he didn’t even care if he died. But as he saw the emptiness around him, he slowly changed his mind, unlike his gun-carrying buddy O-dog. At the end Caine almost escaped gang life, but was shot in a drive-by. As he’s lying on the ground in the final shot of the film, he says to himself, “I guess in the end it all catches up with you. My grandpa asked me one time if I care whether I live or die. Yeah, I do. Now it’s too late.”

    When I saw that film I thought, “What a great message! This is a great anti-gang film, and kids need to hear this message!” But then I heard kids talking about the film. “O-dog was so cool! Did you see when he was shooting at those guys?!!” Kids would hold an imaginary gun sideways to imitate Larenz Tate’s character, O-dog, who always held his gun with the handle side-ways. Now this is a popular gesture among kids. “Did you see that drive by?” “I had a drive by in my neighborhood once!” Kids would brag about who’s neighborhood was rougher.

    I would ask, “What did you think about Caine’s last words- that he wanted to live?” Kids would just shrug their shoulders and say, “Ya gotta be more careful.”

    They missed the message.

    Thirteen is following suit. Just log onto the official site (CLICK HERE) and click on “visit the message boards” to see for yourself. You’ll see it straight from the keyboard of tweens, “This is my absolute favorite movie of all time. I watch it over and over again! I love Evie!”

    If you’re a youth worker or parent, I think “Thirteen” is worth seeing. It definitely earns its “R” rating, so you’ll want to visit for the play by play (CLICK HERE) before you decide to rent it. But the film gives us a realistic glimpse of the Evies and Tracys roaming the halls on jr. high and high school campuses today. Take it from “Rangebitch,” the screen-name of a teenage girl responding to Rolling Stone’s movie review of “Thirteen”:

    “When I saw this film, I said ‘holy sh**’. I’ve been an Evie since I was eleven, my parents were never around so I had to get my attention somehow, you know. God only knows how many girls I’ve ruined. The film is raw, everything in it is possible when you’re eleven or twelve. The only thing bad was that they didn’t show the truth about Evie: girls like us always end up alone.” -Rangebitch-


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    Jonathan McKee

    Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for parents on his website Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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