Mystifyingly well received growing pains drama that wants some cheese to go with its whine.

Released in 2003, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 14 Dec 2003 by Scott Morris
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Children are strange beasts and grow stranger once they hit the teenage years. Puberty sends hormones coursing through bodies, causing strange thoughts, stranger behaviour, mood swings and spots. We know this to be true because we've continually been told it since the invention of hormones in 1949 by Dr. Kevin Hormone. That it doesn't even vaguely tie in with any of theOneliner crew's personal experience is clearly one of those rule proving exceptions. Who are we to fly in the face of common misconceptions of science?

Once such confused cherub is Tracy Freeland (Evan Rachel Wood), freshly dispatched to middle school at the start of a new year. While she and her friends are happy in their pastel colours and happy cartoon laden T-shirts it seems that everyone else has bought shares in The Black Dye Company, or at least taken up the pseudo-goth mass market 'cult' movement doctrines in full force. Tracy and her crew are now different and uncool, and therefore a target of ridicule. Not exactly the most heartbreaking taunts either it must be said, and unlikely to trigger the cataclysmic changes that are soon to unfold. After someone is bitchy about Tracy choice in socks, of all things, she is sent into a stroppy fit, throwing away all childish things to walk as a woman.

One new outfit and several ditched teddy bears later and she achieves her goal of hanging out with the school's resident alpha female, Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed, also impressively the writer). She proves to be a terrifically bad influence on Tracy, as within ten minutes of entering her orbit she's nicked a purse from a hapless bystander and using the ill-gotten gains to fund a shopping spree for her delinquent little friends. Now a completely trusted member of Evie's clique and her newest bestest friend, it's a remarkably swift descent for the former star pupil to skip school, ignore her mother's wishes and get piercings, steal clothes, smoke, get drunk, take drugs, sleep around and so forth.

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While all of this goes on Tracy's mother Mel gradually notices something is going terribly wrong with her daughter but feels powerless to stop it. The home atmosphere is heightened by Tracy's abject disgust at Mel's boyfriend Brady, a recovering drug addict and someone Tracy doesn't think an at all suitable for a replacement father figure. With Tracy and Evie practically inseparable it's perhaps not surprising that Evie looks on Mel as a surrogate mother, although the real focus is on Tracy's troubled relationship with her mother, with Tracy's self-imposed alienation leading to feelings of such loneliness that she resorts to cutting herself. Eventually Mel discovers the true seriousness of her daughter's predicament, ending the film with some hope for Tracy's rehabilitation to normality.

If all of this sounds like it will float your boat then by all means buy a ticket. In a technical sense it's very good. Catherine Hardwicke shoots everything ably, making only one all too common misstep after Tracy takes some unspecified drug. The camera tilts and whirls while various filters are applied to the colour, all the while showing Tracy staggering around. Exactly why it's affecting the audience's perception as well as Tracy's I'm not sure, but that's what the shot setup suggests. If it were reflective of reality it'd be a cheap way to get stoned though, just bust out a Cheech and Chong film every time you fancied getting high. Man.

The acting throughout is never less than utterly believable. At no point was I ever unconvinced that any of the characters were feeling the emotions Reed and Hardwicke's script say they ought to be. While we're perhaps entitled to expect such a performance from the experienced Holly Hunter, it's the performances from Evan Rachel Wood and to a slightly lesser extent Nikki Reed that have been making headlines and the reasons are all too apparent. Both give excellent performances of difficult roles only rarely falling into histrionics of the ilk Harry Enfield's Kevin The Teenager character was so famed for. For relatively inexperienced and immature actors it's an impressive achievement, and for Nikki Reed to have scripted the bulk of the story from bitter personal experience too it's little short of remarkable. Which is, I suppose, the reason I remark on it.

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To explain why despite the last few glowing paragraphs laced with uncharacteristically mild sarcasm this film had much the same impact on me as the aforementioned Enfield comic creation you need look no further than the main character. Initially we have to assume she is a nice little girl because... well, actually there isn't much of a reason. She writes atrocious poetry and plays with Barbie's, which isn't necessarily a free pass to the land of milk and honey. She quickly views her self worth as linked to her personal appearance. She cares what other characterless bitchy no-marks say about her. She succumbs to peer pressure with hitherto unheard of speed, folding like a shirt at a Chinese laundry. Despite having a loving mother she irrationally spurns her affections in favour of a girl she barely knows. Despite the health risks which even at thirteen are all too obvious she has no qualms or even moments of hesitation at smoking cigarettes and taking these largely unspecified drugs. And we all know that drugs are bad, m'kay. She is, in short, spineless and weak-willed.

This is in itself enough to pretty much scupper any sympathy for her character. Making matters more ridiculous is Tracy's eventual decision to stab herself with scissors after particularly troubling incidents. There's a jump in logic with self-harm cases that I've never been able to understand and here is no exception. Scissors are useful implements in a variety of situations, mostly involving cutting things, but I've never figured out how they can make any problem greater than a dangling thread disappear. Why a supposedly intelligent person would think that it would be of any help in her situation is completely beyond me. She is, in short, a moron.

I have little sympathy in me for weak-willed spineless morons, so I can't really buy into the whole teen angst melodrama of it all. Never felt any myself, never could understand it. Don't know if being well balanced and normal made me abnormal as a teenager, never much though about it. Perhaps it's different if you're female, or American. Perhaps I didn't get the memo to act like an idiot for seven years. The point I'm struggling to make is that Tracy's feelings and experiences are utterly alien to me and as such I fail to buy into her struggles.

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American schools as portrayed in movies seem to have a strange Lord Of The Flies-esque caste structure that has little relevance to my experience. While such things are plausible given that for a fair amount of pupils school is little more than a prison; a holding pattern until they can be released to society at large. While in supposedly less enlightened times these kids would be serving an apprenticeship somewhere and doing something useful in this age of compulsory attempts at learning even for those with no interest they have little to do other than clutter up the place and annoy those who really want to learn and those who want to teach them. While well meaning you can't help but feel that the school system is fighting an uphill battle to change human nature.

Trying to take all of this into account and if you've had the same feelings or reactions in some form or another, although perhaps not quite as extreme I can appreciate that this movie will mean a lot more to you than it does to me. Without sounding too much like a broken record there isn't a damn thing wrong with this movie other than the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with my life or experience whatsoever, and that makes it difficult to put this into the same instant classic that many other critics have done.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Catherine Hardwicke
Cast list:
Evan Rachel Wood (Tracy Freeland)
Nikki Reed (Evie Zamora)
Holly Hunter (Melanie Freeland)
Jeremy Sisto (Brady)
Brady Corbet (Mason Freeland)
Deborah Unger (Brooke)
Kip Pardue (Luke)
Sarah Clarke (Birdie)
Vanessa Anne Hudgens (Noel)