Here are two shots of Thirteen's protagonist, Tracy. For clarity's sake, let's call them "Before" and "After."
Here's "Before," wherein Tracy is out in the park, walking her dog:
Here's "After," four months later:
Anyone who is familiar with the words "After School Special" can take a pretty educated guess at some of the narrative touchstones that are going to appear between Before and After: popularity-chasing, stealing, drinking, drugs, sexual experimentation, exposure to a debased culture and bad-seed friends:
Thirteen dutifully hits each one of these marks, which on the surface makes it look like your standard-issue "moral panic" film, a little piece of propaganda designed to scare kids straight (and to scare permissive parents into laying down the law). If it's simultaneously titillating us with the glamour of what it forbids... well, that's never been a problem, that kind of Yes/No witchery is good for keeping a culture jumpy and insane.
But as the film unfolded we in the Film Club began to wonder if it were really so simple. In order to have force as a Cautionary Narrative, the film needs to move us towards one of a number of different possible conclusions: rape, prositution, automobile accident, death resulting from conflict with police, overdose, drug-related murder, whatever. These are the standard endings not only of more obvious Cautionary Narrative films but also of more acclaimed films which (seem to?) transcend the label, but which also deal with sex and/or drugs: think Requiem For A Dream (2000), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Kids (1995), La Haine (1995), etc.
Thirteen, oddlybut perhaps more realistically?chooses to avoid these endings, and in doing so, it undercuts its own status as a Cautionary Narrative, and gains a greater ability to make the claim that it's operating in a more noble neorealist tradition. It does not culminate in shattering disaster but rather in a sense that life (especially working-class life) contains bad choices, conflict, and struggle, but that it essentially goes on: in this regard it functions less as After-School Special and more as a distant sibling to something like Killer of Sheep (1977).
One of the film's most important choices in this regard is its decision to have recovering addicts play a central role in its narrative, most prominent among them Tracy's mother, Mel (Holly Hunter, in a powerful performance). The idea that addicts can recover is anathema to the Cautionary Narrative: think of how seldom this idea appears in, say, the average Partnership for a Drug-Free America ad. (And when it does appearin, say, the current series of anti-meth commercials running in Illinoisnote how the (uncharismatic) people-in-recovery without fail talk about the life-destroying consequence of their addiction: "I lost custody of my son" or what have you.) Mel is not exactly a person who has emerged from addiction undamaged:
but the film takes pains to present her as neither a monster, nor a failure, but rather as a person struggling to make the most of what she has available to her: in short, human. The film never says that drug and alcohol (ab)use are actions that don't have consequences, but it does seem to be saying that those consequences, ultimately, are negotiablea conclusion that feels surprisingly complex.
In La Haine (Film Club IV), one of the characters tells a joke about a man who is falling from the top of a building. As he passes each floor, he says "so far, so good." The punchline?: "It's how you land." That's fitting for La Haine, where the characters seem to be getting by relatively comfortably, even pleasantly at times, until the jolting, destructive impact of the film's final seconds. But the joke doesn't explain the world of Thirteen. Thirteen's characters aren't in a "so far, so good" free-fall but are rather engaged in the effort, each day, of trying to crawl painfully towards something better. It's not about how you land. It's about how you keep going.