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Trouble at home 

Families fall apart in two new American indies

Thirteen

Raleigh native Evan Rachel Wood stars in Thirteen, a film that has been garnering predictable publicity for its allegedly shocking content. However, I found myself squirming and frequently groaning throughout this heavy-handed, melodramatic, and utterly humorless film.

The increasingly busy Wood, who was seen last year in SImOne, plays Tracy, a lonely girl who is being raised by a single mother. She goes to a tough LA public school and, like every other girl her age, she's desperate for acceptance in her school's Darwinian social scene. Understandably, the impressionable Tracy is drawn to Evie (Nikki Reed), the school's sexpot bad girl. Evie initially rebuffs Tracy in humiliating fashion, but soon the girls are as thick as thieves. It then turns out that Evie, who hails from a virtually parentless household, is a needy emotional parasite and a grave danger to Tracy.

Thirteen proclaims its authenticity by virtue of the fact that the script was co-written by the then 13-year-old Reed, based on her own experiences. The resulting film seems designed to push every button of nervous parents as we're treated to the spectacle of two 13-year-olds with fully developed sexual selves and the knowledge of how to shock and terrify their elders. These girls may lack the emotional development for sexual activity, but as the movie's images of Wood and Reed strutting about in their hip huggers and halter tops make clear, these girls are sexually aware and sexually available.

We may object to this representation of young teenage girls, but to deny their sexuality would be to bury our heads in sand. In a review of Kubrick's Lolita, the late Pauline Kael once chastised fellow critics who professed shock that girls in their early teens could have knowledge of sex by urging them to look at the girls around them. Not only do they look like physically mature women, she wrote, but many of them look "badly used." Indeed, when you consider how sex-saturated our media is--nowadays former teen idol Britney Spears is swapping spit with Madonna on national television--how can we expect our kids to be as innocent as Beaver and Wally Cleaver? In fact, I would venture that the average nine year-old knows enough to snigger at the very name of the younger Cleaver child.

Still, I was mostly irritated by Thirteen. The film's much-noted opening scene of the two girls huffing nitrous oxide and giddily punching each other is indeed a powerhouse, but it's all downhill from there. Thirteen is far too self-important and much too eager to shock, as evidenced by the film's poster image of Wood and Reed proudly displaying their pierced tongues. Leaving aside the issue of its representation of young girls, what most grates about the film is the non-stop kitchen sink histrionics. Tracy's mother, the well-meaning but overmatched Melanie (Holly Hunter), is constantly faced with a screaming, insensible daughter and one admires her restraint in not belting the brat.

More obnoxiously, the film pushes buttons by indulging in some rather unfortunate racial appeals when the girls begin sneaking out to party with some good-looking black lads. These scenes recall the final degradation of white women in a couple of other recent films: Traffic, in which Erika Christenson's suburban teen winds up as a crack 'ho underneath the thrusting pelvis of a black dealer; and Requiem for a Dream, in which Jennifer Connelly ends the film as the unwilling object of an interracial gang-bang. Of course, this call to white parents to lock up their daughters is as old as Birth of a Nation, but Thirteen isn't as good as Griffith's 1914 blockbuster. In fact if not in intent, Thirteen bears closer resemblance to such salacious drive-in schlock as Reefer Madness, Jailbait Babysitter or the 1992 film Poison Ivy, in which Sara Gilbert played the Wood role and Drew Barrymore played the bad girl who seduces her.

The Secret Lives of Dentists

Campbell Scott plays a nice guy dentist who works with a lovely dentist wife, played by Hope Davis, in Alan Rudolph's lightly humorous drama The Secret Lives of Dentists. When we meet David and Dana Hurst, they're in the middle of an unexceptional day at the office, punctuated only by David's encounter with an unusually surly patient with very bad teeth, a professional trumpeter named TK, played by Dennis Leary.

They return to their lovely home, which is appointed by--among other things--opera posters, and dine with their three daughters. There's an admirable realism and dearth of sentimentality to the scene, as we observe how their petulant and whiny youngest girl, Leah, favors David over Dana. It's a sore spot with the couple, but on this particular evening, Dana is preparing for her role in the chorus of a community theater opera production. And, before the evening is out, David will have made a terrible discovery: His beloved wife is having an affair.

What's interesting about the approach of the ensuing film is that the story is told entirely from David's point of view. We never meet the interloper; instead, we experience David's anguish and bafflement at his wife's betrayal. And we're confused, too, because David is a model family man, good with the kids, patient and a good provider. What more could a woman want? We don't ever find out exactly why Dana is fed up with the marriage, but she seems to be weary of David's dependable decency, and disillusioned with the realities of her job and her family life.

The Secret Lives of Dentists, which is adapted from a Jane Smiley novel called The Age of Grief, is a modest and intelligent film, but it's also a little boring. What sizzle it has comes mostly courtesy of Dennis Leary, who becomes a cynical, foul-tempered ghost companion of David's through the film as he works out his hurt and his rage.

Still, the film is an excellent vehicle for Davis, whose image--forged in such films as The Daytrippers, About Schmidt and American Splendor--is of a mousy and rather asexual creature. Here, however, she emerges as something of a voluptuously middle-aged sexy beast, a woman who fears the drying up of her youth. And this is one of the more original aspects of The Secret Lives of Dentists, the suggestion that a woman can have a mid-life crisis, too. EndBlock

  • Families fall apart in two new American indies

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