A Look Back: Thirteen

As a general rule of thumb, if you want to give someone a makeover in a Hollywood movie, your odds of success, often beyond your wildest dreams, are all but guaranteed. This is mainly because the only characters who require remaking are undeniably attractive once they remove a few key elements. Impressive makeovers in the movie pantheon include Patrick Dempsey in “Can’t Buy Me Love,” who wound up looking hot with the sleeves ripped off his shirt; Anne Hathaway in “The Princess Diaries,” after she ditches her specs and frizzy ‘do; and Olivia Newton John in “Grease,” who taught impressionable girls in the seventies that what you really need to appeal to a guy is a pushup bra and pants so tight you need the Jaws of Life to remove them. Twists on the youthful makeover include the original “Freaky Friday,” in which Barbara Harris gets to experience every mother-of-a-teen’s-dream when she gives her daughter (Jodie Foster) a makeover while she is actually in Jodie’s body. (OK, perhaps not the second part.) The result is that Jodie emerges looking awfully like she’s about to go to work at a bank, but all that is soon dispelled when she has to perform in a water-skiing show afterwards. Perhaps female characters are more fun to makeover given that many little girls enjoy pretending to be princesses whereas few little boys pine to become princes.

In “Thirteen,” a 2004 movie, the young star (Evan Rachel Wood) gets an anti-princess makeover of sorts, which leads (as expected) to increased popularity but also (as expected) a lot of risky adventures that teach her some harsh lessons about those who try to grow up too fast. When the movie starts, Evan is the kind of good girl who (literally) plays with Barbies and doesn’t cause her recovering alcoholic single mom (Holly Hunter) to lose sleep. However, she becomes bewitched by the bad girl (Nikki Reed, who wrote the screenplay – as a teen – as well) of her seventh grade class and embarks on an at-first fruitless quest to get her attention. Guilt-tripping her mom until Holly takes her to secure some designer (or close enough) stuff, Evan also experiments with shoplifting – after which, the two girls are close to becoming inseparable. After Nikki, employing the wiles of seasoned bad girls, manages to insert herself into Holly’s household to the point where she stays overnight, confides some disturbing things about her own guardian, the stage is set for the two teens to self-destruct. And this they do, – everything from sexually harassing a neighborhood guy (Kip Purdue) who calls them “jailbait” to body piercing. The film ends with Evan’s former life in flames. Her last word of dialogue is literally, “Stop,” and in case the viewer misses the point, we see her on a merry-go-round.

“Thirteen” will give anyone who has ever seen an Afterschool Special or a Lifetime Movie of the Week about a “good” kid who rapidly goes bad deja vu. Evan experiments with antisocial behavior like it’s a buffet, and she hasn’t seen food for weeks, but the dialogue and the actions of the two young actresses ring true. I suppose parents of teens could watch it and (most of them) feel relief that at least their child’s acting out isn’t as bad as Evan’s. At least Evan, after being initially embarrassed by Nikki, does not do what Winona Ryder in “Heathers” did and plot her murder. The movie does not end on an optimistic note, but I suppose the viewer is free to fill in their own.

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Movie Review: The Big Sick

“The Big Sick” is one of those movies that sneaks its way into the theater over the summer, when all the franchises and blockbusters are battling in a death match to see who will triumph at the box office and sticks around because it’s so good and unlike your typical blockbuster. Like “The Way Way Back,” a few years ago, it’s a heartwarming story of people who the viewer can actually picture running into in real life, but with a sting in its tail. As you might expect from the title, it does feature a major character who becomes seriously, well, sick – and if you prefer to remain in doubt over whether they make it to the credits, I’m afraid that this review contains spoilers.

“The Big Sick,” is actually based on a real-life couple, here played by Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani American who works as a Uber driver by day and a struggling (is there any other kind?) comedian at night, and Zoe Kazan, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who is studying to become a therapist. It’s also based on a real-life scenario – the inspirations for this did go through the whole coma thing, which removed my last objection to the movie: that the set-up seemed a bit Hollywoodish. The two meet after Zoe “heckles” Kumail inadvertently by yelling out something positive during his act; he later explains to her that heckling qualifies as either positive or negative. “What if I yelled out something like, “He’s really good in bed,?” she retorts, which sets off a string of adorable banter, dates that aren’t supposed to really be dates, and finally, a misunderstanding surrounding Kumail’s “secret” romantic life. This refers to the fact that his mother is determined to fix him up with a suitable marriage partner and keeps inviting young women over when he’s there having family meals. (Apparently, there are an amazing number of model-worthy women of the desired ethnic origin all free to be vetted by Kumail’s rabidly eager family.) ¬†When Kumail explains that he will be shunned by his family if he doesn’t follow the traditional path (marriage and law school), Zoe is conflicted, and the two temporarily part.

Spoiler alert! Act Two involves Kumail giving permission (sort of) for Zoe to be put in a medically induced coma, which does not please her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), but eventually, since there are medical complications, this paves the way for bonding between the three. With Zoe temporarily out of the picture, the zaniness is dialed back a few notches, but her parents soon prove to be almost as eccentric as her. There is a happy ending eventually, although there are enough realistic twists and turns on the way there, that “The Big Sick” never feels saccharine. If a movie revolving around a girlfriend in a coma sounds like this can’t be avoided, the viewer is likely to be pleasantly surprised.