Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2003 / 15 Elul 5763
What teenagers really want
I regret to inform those readers who tell me that they have enjoyed reading the world views of my son in this column from time to time that he now refuses to speak for publication.
In fact, he refuses to speak much at all, beyond "Can I invite a friend over?," "Can I have (fill in the blank)?" and "I don't feel like (fill in another blank.)"
I can explain his new attitude with two words: He's 14.
That's one year older than the two girls-gone-wild characters in "Thirteen," the low-budget, high-concept movie that my wife and I went to see because it sounded like the sort of movie that parents like us should see.
After all, unlike most teens-gone-bad movies, this one was co-written by an actual teenager. Maybe we could learn something. When your own child won't tell you what's on his or her mind, you look for clues wherever you can.
Nikki Reed, who also co-stars in the movie, says she based the script on real-life misadventures that a woefully mixed-up girlfriend led her into. That was way back when they were both 13. I guess that she didn't have the smarts then that she now has at the ripe old age of 15.
Director Catherine Hardwicke, who was dating Nikki's dad at the time, helped rescue the child from her 8th-grade blues by helping her turn her saga into a script. Smartly done despite its teeny $1.5 million budget, the movie portrays two white middle-class 13-year-old Los Angeles girls who pretty much giggle their way through drugs, lying, stealing, shoplifting, promiscuous sex and getting wasted from snorting spray cans, until in the span of a few weeks their little worlds come crashing down.
Nikki, who is sadly neglected by her alcoholic ex-model mom, corrupts Tracy, played by Evan Rachel Wood, who privately mutilates herself in grisly scenes that reminded me of "Hurt," Johnny Cash's recent hit: "I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel ..."
Holly Hunter plays Tracy's divorced and overwhelmed mother, who is struggling to make ends meet with an at-home hair-styling business. When Tracy's young life is falling apart, Mom summons her absentee ex, who appears on the scene greatly annoyed and demanding to hear what the problem is "in a nutshell," as if any teen problem could be summed up so tidily.
> You ache for the daughter when her dad interrupts their all-too-brief sit-down by taking business calls on his cell phone. Then he begs off taking the girl away for a weekend. He has to work to help support his children, he says, even while his daughter is self-destructing in his absence.
Movie message alert: The root cause of teens from hell is parents from hell.
Much has been made of the movie's relationships between mothers and daughters. Hardwicke calls the movie "cinematherapy" for "kids and moms."
But I was even more taken by the way it raises a perennial question: Where are the dads?
The importance of dads to the lives of daughters, as well as sons, is receiving long-overdue attention from psychologists. Girls who are not living with their fathers begin to have sex sooner and are more likely to become pregnant than teenagers from two-parent homes, according to a 13-year Duke University study of 762 girls.
And despite the predictable presence of poverty in some of those households, the heightened sexual activity and pregnancies were found in more affluent families too.
But were I not silenced by our son's self-imposed information blackout, I would tell you that he did not want to see the movie because, based on the reviews, it sounded "too exaggerated."
He would tell you, if he were speaking for publication, that most teenagers' lives are not nearly as screwed up as those in the movie. Sure, some teenagers do get off on drugs, lying, stealing, shoplifting, promiscuous sex, self-mutilation and getting wasted from snorting spray cans, he would say, but, hey, not all at the same time.
How does he know? He hears about it at school. To me, the biggest irony of "Thirteen" is that its depiction of the seedier side of today's teenagers is rated "R," which means that they can't see it in theaters without a grown-up.
And as a 19-year-old woman who had just seen the movie told a New York Times reporter, if you're the kind of parent who takes your kid to see a movie like "Thirteen," you're probably not the kind of person who needs to see it.
She has a point. If kids want anything from their parents, it is to be heard, even at those times when they don't seem to want to talk to you.
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