In “Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives” we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.
Some movies are so powerful, you don’t even have to see them. It’s enough to steal a furtive glance at two older girls with pierced tongues on a DVD cover at your local Blockbuster. It’s enough to hear rumors that at some point in the movie these two goth-lite cool girls will kiss — French kiss.
This week marks the twentieth anniversary of Catherine Hardwicke’s Sundance-winning debut Thirteen, starring Evan Rachel Wood, Holly Hunter, and then 14-year-old co-writer Nikki Reed. When it was first released in theatres, I was nine and my older sister was the titular age of rebellion and destruction. All I knew about the film was that its alluring poster scared me — almost as much as the snippets of forbidden moments shared with me by my sister and her friends.
By the time I turned thirteen, by the time I, myself, was at the age where kids watched movies on a dare, this particular film about girlhood was passé. I was a cinephile — my dare films were far more grotesque than this D.A.R.E. film. When you’re a young teen watching Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, there’s no need to go back and watch Thirteen. And when your closeted trans lesbianism starts to poke out, you’re going to watch clips from Cruel Intentions and Wild Things and even Gray Matters over two girls who are now your own age.
Twenty years after its initial release, I have finally confronted my two decade old fear and my slightly less than two decade old indifference. I watched Thirteen on Disney+ — I’m in Canada — and received a window into the culture that raised me. Watching it now in 2023, it’s obvious that Thirteen, for better or worse, belongs in the canon of lesbian cinema. Its tale of queer girl coming-of-age goes deeper than a kiss — even a French one.
Thirteen is about a girl named Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) who lives with her mom (Holly Hunter) and brother (Brady Corbet). She’s a good kid, gets good grades, and has good friends who are good kids and get grades. But then one day she decides to seek the approval of her school’s resident bad girl, Evie (Nikki Reed). As that friendship deepens, Tracy falls further into a spiral of drugs, sex, and self-harm.
The film succeeds where similar neo-after school specials fail by expanding Tracy’s world beyond this one relationship. Evie may be a bad influence, but there’s a reason Tracy seeks out the potent drug of a fucked up bad girl. Tracy’s mom is a great mom — she’s also distracted with problems of her own. Tracy’s dad is absent unless he’s giving excuses for his absence. And the deeper structural issues of sexism, capitalism, and a lack of mental healthcare add further grief to Tracy’s angst.
The problems Tracy faces may not seem particularly brutal or unique — her rebellion isn’t either. Despite the movie’s scared-straight reputation, Hardwicke wisely knows the limits of raised stakes. There are many unpleasant moments, Tracy experiences things no one her age should, but the film also knows when to pull back. It’s surprisingly restrained in its narrative, which makes its difficult moments feel more authentic.
Even as a trans girl who spent her adolescence as a boy, I experienced the thin line between a pained lesbian crush and codependent female friendship. At that age — any age? — the feelings are blurred. Straights and queers alike often experience their first romance through friendship and people will disagree about what lines must be crossed for something to count as queer. One woman might view a relationship as proof of youthful platonic intimacy while the woman she kissed and cuddled looks back on it as proof of nascent lesbianism. But as a queer woman watching Thirteen in 2023, Evie and Tracy — especially Tracy — are just so extremely gay.
Before their friendship begins, Tracy eyes Evie like a crush. She wants Evie’s approval and is drawn to her sexuality. The first time we see Tracy cut herself is after Evie runs off with a boy. And when Evie returns she puts her arms around Tracy, kisses her neck, and says, “I love you.wp_postsThe only times we see Tracy do anything sexual with a boy is when Evie is there. During her first straight hook up, Tracy is literally watching Evie with another boy, mimicking her actions. Post-coital, the boys are no longer there, just Tracy and Evie cuddling. Tracy rubs lotion on Evie, almost has a threesome with Evie, is penetrated by Evie’s piercing, and then, of course, there’s the kiss.
This moment begins like so many kisses begin in coming-of-age movies: Evie is teasing Tracy about her lack of experience, questioning her kissing abilities. “Want me to prove it lesbo?wp_postsTracy asks. They kiss. And then, as proof it isn’t one-sided, Evie says, “I barely even felt that.wp_postsShe might as well say, “Wait. Don’t stop.wp_postsThey kiss some more and will soon consummate this makeout using those two boys as each other’s proxy.
The reason this buzzed about kiss scared me as a kid is because it was supposed to. It was discussed with the nervous disgust of suburban kids raised to think queerness was wrong. In the film, it acts as another stop in Tracy’s spiral, proof that she’s approaching an inescapable point of immorality. Earlier, Evie kissing Tracy’s mom on the lips acts as a first warning. Queerness — specifically bisexuality — is a mark of immorality and sexual depravity.
Race is used the same way as the movie’s flashes of explicit queerness. The two boys Tracy and Evie hook up with are Black and any time Tracy interacts with someone who isn’t white — hookups, the guy who gives her the tongue piercing, some girls who try to beat her up — it’s meant to signify how far she’s drifted from the safety of heterosexual white suburbia.
At its worst, Thirteen is just a Dateline special about “rainbow partieswp_postswith great acting and overzealous color grading. But whenever it starts to edge too far into this tired conservatism, it redirects toward something true — about girlhood, about motherhood, about queer discovery.
The most noteworthy detail in Tracy and Evie’s kiss scene isn’t the kiss itself — it’s a line right before. When Evie first doubts Tracy’s kissing abilities, she responds, “Me and Noel practiced with Cruel Intentions like 50 times.wp_postsNoel was Tracy’s best friend before Evie, a good kid played by Disney’s own Vanessa Hudgens. This line is brief but it’s one of the few moments that includes queerness as more than a sign of danger. This line hints at a queerness that’s inherent in Tracy, inherent in many girlhoods. Plenty of girls practice kissing on their hands. Instead, Tracy and her goody-two-shoes friend Noel watched Cruel Intentions and made out — like 50 times.
This conflict between the normativity Thirteen aims to present and the lived reality of girlhood is even more 2003 than the painful fashion. Throughout my childhood, being gay was said to be undesirable and rare. Even the most liberal parents in my community seemed to accept queerness in other kids but not their own. And yet queerness was all around us. It appeared when two girls practiced kissing with a bit too much enthusiasm, when two boys had weekly jackoff contests, when TV shows let a female character kiss a girl to boost ratings.
The girls whose bisexuality was seen as just another piercing are now simply bisexual. The girls who admired those girls from afar are queer too. More of our queer teens — on-screen, in life — get to just be queer. Parents might still not like it, new laws still might try to legislate it away, but two decades later the kids themselves have the language. Evan Rachel Wood is an out bisexual actress — she’s joined by a new generation of queer actors whose work is unavoidable even on American Disney+. Queerness can no longer be dismissed as kids acting out or a sign of promiscuity.
Adolescence is still a time of pain and confusion. We still haven’t done much about sexism, capitalism, or mental healthcare. But at least fucked up teens have a better chance of understanding why they want to makeout with their friend. At least it might not take kids decades to know why they scroll so quickly past a certain movie poster.
It’s dangerous to romanticize the present — each moment contains its own challenges connected to those of the past. But watching Thirteen twenty years after I first blushed under the gaze of those two teens and their pierced tongues, I kept having the same thoughts again and again:
I’m so glad we survived 2003. I’m so glad it’s no longer 2003. I never want to go back to 2003.