Catherine Hardwicke was paid $3 on Thirteen — $2 for the screenplay, which she co-wrote with actress Nikki Reed (then 13), and $1 for directing. Fifteen years later, that film stands out as a still-potent cultural milestone for women who grew up in the early aughts — a searing snapshot of the twisted, painful turmoil of being a teenage girl, without the redeeming after school special epilogue. Thirteen spoke to us, not at us.
“I was a first time director,” Hardwicke said during a Refinery29 roundtable for the landmark movie’s anniversary— the first time Hardwicke, Reed, and Evan Rachel Wood have been together since its release. “All the characters are women, and it was going to be rated R and about a teenager. That does not check the boxes for any studio.”
So, in her pursuit to get the film made, Hardwicke worked for nothing and poured whatever money she could into production. The filmmaker, who would go on to direct the first installment in the massive Twilight franchise, used her own furniture as props. Her car makes an appearance, as do some of her clothes. She and the cast, including leads Wood and Reed, slept in the rented house in Los Angeles where they filmed, often in the same bed. (Since then, the film has turned a profit — Hardwicke says she received a check for $18,000 two months ago.)
All of this — the paltry $1.5 million budget, the whirlwind one month summer shooting schedule — contributes to the raw, dizzying atmosphere of Thirteen, a dark and gritty take on the experience of being a teenage girl at a time when the only cinematic alternatives were Freaky Friday and The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Harmony Korine’s Kids — perhaps the closest example in terms of impact and subject matter — had come out nearly a decade before.
I vaguely remember the circumstances under which I saw Thirteen. It was likely a hot, humid early September day in Montreal — the kind that would make my best friend and I seek refuge in one of the city’s downtown movie theaters. I was 13; my best friend was days away from her own 13th birthday.
What I vividly recall are the feelings the film elicited. I remember being terrified, a fear I couldn’t exactly name, but which gnawed at my innards as I watched Tracy Freeland (Wood) morph from a prepubescent innocent into a sexualized harridan who hides her tongue and belly button piercings from her mother. Would I be like that? Should I be? I remember feeling seen, recognizing how intimate a relationship between two teenage girls can be. I remember squirming at the scenes showing interactions with boys, things I was starting to think about but couldn’t imagine myself actually going through.
Of course, none of these anxieties were voiced as the lights came up, and my best friend and I wandered back out into the haze of the afternoon. But Thirteen had made its mark, as it has on countless women of my generation.
I wouldn’t learn until years later that the film was helmed by women. The script emerged out of a collaboration between Hardwicke and Reed, who had a personal connection: Hardwicke had been in a long-term relationship with Reed’s father and thought of her as a surrogate daughter. They kept in touch after the breakup, and Hardwicke started noticing that something wasn’t right with Reed. Much like Tracy, she was acting out, rising rapidly through the ranks of popularity at her West L.A. school. And then her friends got busted for selling crystal meth.
In her concern for Reed, Hardwicke invited the teen to her Venice Beach home. It was there that over a six-day period in January 2002, the pair wrote the script that would become Thirteen. In the aftermath, they made a pact: If Hardwicke could get the film into production, she would direct it, and Reed would star in it.
Still, the road ahead was rocky. An R-rated movie co-written by a teenager with female leads wasn’t exactly an easy sell. Securing funds wasn’t easy for Hardwicke, who was then working as a production designer in Hollywood, and had no prior directing experience; Reed, meanwhile, had never acted onscreen, and the screenplay was her first. It wasn’t until Holly Hunter, who would go on to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Tracy’s mother, signed on that the project finally got off the ground. After an acclaimed premiere at Sundance, where Hardwicke won the top directing award, Fox Searchlight Pictures acquired the film for distribution. Thirteen was released in five U.S. theaters on August 20, 2003, and grossed $116,260 opening weekend. But the salacious subject matter resulted in word-of-mouth and heightened press coverage, especially for the teen leads. By its third week of release, Thirteen’s gross had increased by 622%, as did the film’s reach, as it went on to screen in 73 theaters, and then up to 243, for a total domestic gross of $4.6 million.
But the value of seeing oneself represented on screen is something that’s harder to quantify.
“It takes women to tell female stories,” Reed says during the interview. This is something we’ve heard many times as Hollywood grapples with the way the industry historically treated women, as well as the systemic inequality that has resulted in a still-egregious gender gap.
Thirteen was an extreme portrayal of the alienation of an especially troubled teenage girl. But that hunger for an outlet for those complicated emotions is universal. “I had a need in me, like Tracy, to just explode,” Wood said. “And acting was something I did so that I could do that. I felt like I couldn’t do it anywhere else.
”If it’s been a while, here’s a quick recap: Tracy Freeland (Wood) is a good girl. She gets straight As, loves golden retrievers, and wears her fair blonde hair in cute dual buns. But that doesn’t mean everything’s rosy. Her poetry is an intense, poignant exploration of early teenagehood. Her single mother Melanie is a recovering alcoholic who runs a beauty salon out of her kitchen, and though she’s an attentive parent, she’s overwhelmed. And Tracy’s father (D.W. Moffett), constantly behind on child support, is too focused on his new family and new job to care very much. Tracy copes by locking herself in the bathroom and resorting to self-harm, an act that was shocking to many at the time. But not to Wood.
“I hadn’t really done drugs,” she said. “I was a lot of talk, sex-wise, but wasn’t really doing much. But the emotions, and that feeling of frustration and being lost and angry, and the dynamics with the family and the cutting — those were things where I was like, ‘Oh. I know what this is. Like, I understand this really well.”
“That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do it too,” the actress, who recently testified before Congress about a sexual assault that led her self-harm and two suicide attempts, explained. “Because I was like, I didn’t know cutting was a thing until I read the script. And that’s when I was like, ‘Other people do this?’
”So, when classmate Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed) comes along with her jeweled cross necklace, long glossy hair, and jeans so low you can see her thong peeking out, Tracy is already primed for some acting out. It would be easy to paint what comes next as black and white — and in fact, many of the film’s critics did so at the time. Evie and Tracy strike up a friendship, which leads Tracy down a bleak path of drugs, questionably consensual sexual encounters, illicit piercings, and shoplifting. But the truth is more complicated. In her own way, Evie is as vulnerable as Tracy. She lives with a woman named Brooke, sometimes referred to as her guardian, other times her cousin, whose main occupation seems to be recovering from Botox injections and getting drunk. She doesn’t care what Evie does with her time, as long as no ones calls the cops. With Evie by her side, Tracy upgrades to It Girl status at school. But that comes at the expense of her grades, her relationship with her mother, and even her own mental health.
The acting is fantastic. Seasoned child actress Wood, who would be nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award, handles Tracy’s descent into hell with fiery zeal, concealed under angelic looks. When, towards the end, she’s wandering Hollywood Boulevard in a crop top and smeared black lipstick, drunk, she looks like a nightmare version of herself, her inner turmoil having taken over. It’s a duality that would come into play later in her career, as Dolores, the mild host-turned-avenger on HBO’s Westworld. Reed exudes an uncomfortable degree of sexuality for such a young woman, but there’s also a sadness to her, a need to be loved. And as Melanie, a mother who loves her daughter fiercely, but is blind to the scope of what’s going on behind her closed bedroom door, Hunter quivers with anger, anxiety and concern.
Watching the film for the first time as an adult, I was amazed at how avant-garde it feels.
The central relationships aren’t romantic in nature. Instead, the film focuses on the dynamics between female friends and mothers and daughters. That fraught connection between Tracy and Melanie is one that we’re only just starting to see again, in films like Lady Bird, and, veering sharply into supernatural horror, Hereditary.
Evie and Tracy’s friendship is complex and intense, vacillating between almost sensual devotion and cruel rivalry, especially where Melanie’s affections are concerned. That need to be utterly consumed by one’s best friend while grappling with latent jealousy is so specific to young women of that age, and a dynamic that’s rarely portrayed, even today.
It’s so true to life that while filming, Wood and Reed developed a rapport that mirrored the one they were portraying on screen. “There were moments that I was completely in love with you,” Wood, who came out as bisexual in 2011, told Reed.“
We had this kind of innocence about our relationship that was so personal to us,” Reed responded. “It was ours, and it was so real […] And then, because a lot of that was in the movie, when it became something that the press could talk about, suddenly it was like our actual relationship, in a sense, was put out there for people to talk about.”
As often happens in Hollywood, especially where young girls are concerned, the stars were held up for comparison by the press. Who was cooler? Who was hotter? Who would have the best career? Things actually got so acute that, like Tracy and Evie, the two drifted apart, not speaking again until nearly a decade later.
“We had to talk about it when we were 25,” Reed said. “I actually went to [Hardwicke’s] house, and I said, ‘You know, I haven’t talked to Evan in so long, and I really miss her.’ You gave me her number, and I said, ‘Do you think she would even want me to call her?’ You were like, “Yeah. You guys are in such a similar space.’ We had both gotten married. I called [Wood], and it was so cool. [She was] like, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’”
Still, Thirteen is best remembered for its shocking scenes — and there are many, including the opening shot, which shows Evie and Tracy sitting on a bed, huffing paint and punching each other in the face, laughing. A provocative confrontation later in the film shows Tracy bragging to her mother that’s she’s not wearing a bra or panties.
In one memorable moment, Evie and Nikki seduce an older neighbor, played by then-27-year-old Kip Pardue, who reportedly wasn’t aware that the actresses were 14 until he showed up to shoot. “‘He was in shock,” Hardwicke said.” I was trying to talk him down off the ledge, ‘Look, we’re going to be safe. I’m going to be there, the teacher’s going to be there. It’s all gonna be cool.’"
Ground rules were established: A studio teacher was present at all times, sitting behind the couch the three were kissing on. “Couldn’t touch the nipples,” Wood recalled. “Couldn’t touch the top of Kip’s pants.”
All the same, the final film was extremely controversial, so much so that, Hardwicke said, juvenile court judges and directors of rehab centers, accompanied her at Q&As after early screenings so parents could voice their concerns.
“Three mothers stand up: ‘My daughter would never do that,’ she recalled. “And then the judge would say, ‘Excuse me, this movie is mild. Not one person got pregnant. No one got in a car crash, no one [died by] suicide. Nobody died. I see much more elevated cases in this every single day.’”
“I found myself in a weird position where I was being asked to be sort of the spokesperson for teen angst,” Reed said. (A clip from her 2003 appearance on Ellen shows her on the defensive, explaining that she’s a straight-A student: “I just got my report card.)
Both Reed and Wood are parents themselves now. Reed and husband Ian Somerhalder have a one-year-old daughter, Bodhi Soleil. Wood’s son Jack, from her previous marriage to actor Jamie Bell, is five. “I’d show it to my son,” she said of Thirteen. “ I think boys need to be watching more female-centric films anyways, so they have a better understanding about women, and opposite sex.”
Still, they now feel they have a deeper understanding of the visceral reaction adults, particularly parents, had to the film at the time. “I see it all differently,” Reed said. “I’m totally terrified, and I’m also really grateful for it. I feel like I have a really good understanding of some of the things that are going on.“
The movie helped open the door for Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which graphically depicts scenes of sexual assault, self-harm, and suicide, and even to a certain extent Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s film about the inner life of a 14-year-old girl who turns to the internet to compensate for the feelings of inadequacy she’s facing in the real world.
The lack of social media does date the film, as does its inability to really grapple with race and privilege. As a white middle-class young woman, Tracy is afforded the benefit of the doubt, not to mention a second chance. If she’d been a woman of color, she might never have recovered from her year-long bender. In fact, the only people of color in the film are the guys that Tracy and Evie alternately hook up with, and buy drugs from, a setup that is particularly iffy in hindsight.
Overall, however, Thirteen holds up in a way that never would have seemed possible to Hardwicke or Reed at the time they wrote the script. The impact it has had over the last 15 years far exceeds its original reach. Hardwicke’s $3 payday went a long, long way.
“Literally the other day, a woman came up to me, she’s like 28 or 30, working at a cool company, Hardwicke recalled. “She goes: ‘You know what, I saw Thirteen,’ and it scared her straight. She never drank or smoked in her life, or did any drugs.”
“I don’t know if there will ever be anything quite like it,” Reed said. “It was kind of just magic.”
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please get help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.