Thirteen<br></br>Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself

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The opening shot of Thirteen has its adolescent heroine framed against her bedroom wall, flanked on one side by a teddy bear, on the other by a pin-up male torso. It's her predicament in a nutshell: one moment, LA girl Tracy is all ankle-socks and ponytails, the next she's discovering sex, drugs, theft, body piercing and self-mutilation. About all she doesn't do is sign up for a role in a Larry Clark movie.

Catherine Hardwicke's film may superficially resemble a gentler version of kids or Clark's other fascinated explorations of the lawless Republic of Teen. Very probably, Thirteen could never have been made if Clark hadn't already lifted up the sociological stone under which American cinema might have preferred not to peer. Yet Thirteen is very much its own film: more mainstream than Clark (it's a Working Title co-production), it's also more lucid, more capable of getting under its subjects' skin while casting their extremities under the cold light of realism.

If the film has the ring of truth, that's because Hardwicke gets her info from the source. Her co-writer is Nikki Reed, now 15, who plays Tracy's bad-girl mentor Evie; the story draws on Reed's earlier exploits as a pubescent wild child. Thirteen is not a sensational exposé, out to make adult jaws drop; its well-structured narrative, very much from Tracy's point of view, makes it more like one of those tougher young-adult novels that certain school librarians still refuse to stock.

The film's keenest insight is in its depiction of peer pressure and infatuation. Tracy's transformation begins when Evie, her school's precocious new arbiter of cool, sashays in with her bitchy gang, all dressed and made up to look like Christina Aguilera backing dancers. Tracy is flung into a state half adulation, half self-loathing, childhood suddenly revealed as a disease requiring a drastic cure. When Tracy dresses up and approaches Evie for appraisal, we realise how much proto-sapphic narcissism is involved: as the girls eye each other up, the camera freezes on hair, midriff and earlobes. Realising she's passed the initial test, Tracy shrieks rapturously as if she's got her first hot date.

The film vividly evokes the euphoria of new illicit freedom, but after a while, takes the wild living for granted and looks inward. Adopting a sort of tender quasi-parental detachment, Hardwicke is interested in the dynamic between the two girls, whose mutually fascinated, mutually suspicious conspiracy is sensitively, even scarily played by Wood and Reed. We know Tracy needs a self-image as much as she needs the kicks that accompany it, but Evie needs something more, and something more obscure. As Evie confidently swanks into Tracy's home and wins the approval of her mother Melanie (Holly Hunter), there's a subtle chill as she says, "I love you Mel," and it sounds like "Mom" - a faux-innocent seduction from a manipulative, needy cuckoo in the nest.

Hardwicke doesn't give us the facile answer that either parents or consumerism are responsible, yet it's fair to say that the world round the girls is pretty screwed up. It's amid this world that Melanie, although dysfunctional herself, is at least seen as being, as they say, just-good-enough - yet that's still not enough for Tracy's needs. The key scene where Hardwicke shifts focus from daughter to mother, giving us Hunter huddled naked and dripping on her bed, suggests that the two share the same kind of emotional hell, if they only had a common language to understand it.

Hardwicke's sure touch means we know we can trust her in the film's riskiest scene, where the girls seduce the older boy next door. We sense that they're willing to go all the way, even if he isn't: this is the one scene that flirts with titillation, and the point is to make us see the borderline the girls are walking, and realise how dangerously effective is their disguise of experienced adulthood.

The film is certified 18 in Britain, and although the content is fairly explicit, the BBFC is surely kidding itself if it thinks most teenagers aren't aware of this stuff. Hardwicke's clear-headed narrative is apparently pitched partly at a teenage audience, even angled as the sort of brisk, intelligent material that fifth-formers could profitably discuss, though they might prefer their teacher to leave the room. The final freeze-frame suggests that Thirteen somewhat aspires to being a latterday female 400 Blows; if not quite that, it's a creditable attempt, an insightful, non-judgmental guide to the strange psycho-social geography of our Britneyfied culture.

Danish director Lone Scherfig made her name with Italian For Beginners, a dour little romantic comedy given an earthy patina by being shot to Dogme rules. In Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself, Scherfig is again matchmaking for oddball lonelyhearts, but this time the whimsy goes to extremes, resulting in one of the year's most peculiar-tasting, if not downright unpalatable, offerings.

Wilbur is a lightweight tale about two brothers who have inherited a rundown bookshop in Glasgow. Harbour (Adrian Rawlings) is a gentle, benign fellow - oddly enough, rather like a harbour, a haven if you will, to those around him - while Wilbur (Jamie Sives) compulsively attempts suicide. Into their lives comes waifish, soft-spoken Alice - soft-spoken even by Shirley Henderson's usual standards - dragging behind her a precociously wise daughter forever dispensing shy, wry comments on the human condition.

The press notes hint that the film is set in Glasgow largely because a co-production opportunity came up, which is why the script, originally written in Danish, feels so ungainly. It's not just that the gentle gags are often borderline-nonsensical ("Does Horst mean sausage in German?" - "Nope, but you're close"), but also that the characters move like uncomfortable ghosts through a world that isn't remotely their own. The sotto voce diction and the pall of bemused tenderness make it feel as if we're watching an extended Ivor Cutler anecdote adapted to the screen via the Danish. Among a mainly British cast making the best out of having to be quirkily amiable, Julia Davis stands out as a new-agey sexpot with wretched taste in hairstyles. The film is at its most offensively trivial when trying to persuade us that it's emotionally deep, and its saccharine score is downright emetic. You might not want to kill yourself, but feel free to stick a finger down your throat.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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