From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
This week, we're honoring Holly Hunter. Live in an Alamo market? Get your tickets to the Raising Arizona Movie Party here!
Thirteen is ostensibly about a teenage girl going (spectacularly) off the rails. But, really, its focus is on a mother-daughter relationship in crisis, and the struggle to understand each other as the two women get older and their lives gradually grow more complicated. It's a cautionary tale, but not the one it initially appears to be based on its brash, provocative surface.
In a cast boasting a pre-fame Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed (who co-wrote the script based on her own experiences growing up) and Vanessa Hudgens, Holly Hunter is the biggest name and therefore afforded the highest billing. And, although the story focuses on Wood's Tracy, it's Hunter, as her tortured mother, who makes the biggest emotional impact.
When we first meet Mel, she's hiding her secret smoking habit by stuffing a just-snuffed out butt into the pocket of her cool mom jeans. Her relationship with Tracy is open and loving, nurtured within the confines of their bustling California bungalow, which is constantly full of people thanks to Mel's at-home hairdressing business.
Her first mistake is taking their assured relationship for granted, expecting Tracy to be mature before her time. Although her kid's poem hints at an inner darkness, Mel is too focused on fighting her own demons (she's running late for an AA meeting) to give it the attention it deserves. She relies on Tracy for babysitting, taking advantage of her good-girl nature, to the detriment of her schoolwork.
The argument could be made that Mel, herself in a state of extended adolescence (she even dresses similarly to her daughter, wearing a childish, glittery slide in her hair on a trip to the movies), expects her daughter to be responsible even more so than herself. Evie refers to her as "the hot big sister" and Mel tries to be as cool as possible, providing new clothes for Tracy in spite of being poor.
She continues rooting for her kid even when it seems obvious Tracy is up to no good ("I didn't know it went that far!" Mel cries, when presented with the results of her daughter's many crime sprees). All the while, Hunter's wide, kind eyes remain devastatingly open, her crackly voice grasping for some kind of understanding as the situation spirals out of control.
We see how Mel lets her drug-abusing on again/off again boyfriend (who Tracy snidely asks about the halfway house, intimating theirs is a bit of a halfway house itself, in the process) off the hook constantly, along with practically everyone else in her life. Evie manipulates Mel easily by appealing to her motherly instincts, backing her into a corner based off Mel's own lack of a mother growing up.
In an emotional phone call to her sponsor ("I just wanna make it stop"), Hunter lays bare Mel's soul. The actress is so raw and honest here that, when her character finally snaps – tearing up the floor and spilling cereal everywhere – the camera pulls all the way back to take a good look at her, crouched on the floor, tiny like a child. In that moment, Mel seems just like a bratty teenager having a meltdown. She might even be Tracy.
Later, after being stripped and put in the shower, all the while murmuring about how she "can't do it anymore", Hunter again reveals this woman's many layers – someone who had to grow up quickly and adjust to increasingly difficult circumstances (being a single mom, alcohol addiction, etc). It's a naked (metaphorically and literally), emotionally open, and incredibly fragile moment, presented without a shred of vanity, that completely sells us on a lifetime of struggle.
Mel's defiant refusal to give up on her daughter further exemplifies her inherently kind nature. She's visibly shaken by Tracy's behaviour, but when everything finally comes to a head, she rallies to her kid's defence once more. Mel is able to get on a level with anyone, taking a drag off Evie's guardian's cigarette when the two meet to discuss her charge, which is what makes the sudden change in her own child so arresting and difficult.
Tracy's father, in contrast, can't even begin to get on his kid's level, asking her "what's the problem?" as though it's just one issue he can magically fix, and casually referring to her as a client. As a mother, Mel should probably force him to take more accountability but as someone who, as Tracy cruelly notes, has foregone paying bills to help others in need, that isn't really an option.
But in Mel's passionate defence of the life she's built for herself, and by herself, ("we're doing okay; you know we're doing okay") Hunter again displays this woman's strength. She never gives up, even when she perhaps should.
Thirteen's handheld shooting style lends a gritty urgency, a real-time feel, to the crumbling relationship at its core. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious how alike Tracy and Mel are, the two of them struggling to adjust to their changing lives (women struggling to keep it together is a running theme throughout). Daughter doesn't want mother to walk in while she's changing, mother doesn't understand why suddenly she isn't allowed to see her kid's body anymore, and so on.
With self harm still one of the greatest taboos in cinema (Axelle Carolyn's Soulmate was banned by the BBFC for its realistic portrayal of wrist-slashing just a few years ago), Mel's reaction to seeing Tracy's cuts for the first time is one of the most emotional moments in the entire movie. Likewise, it's the image of the two women sitting on the kitchen floor, as Mel kisses her daughter's cuts and rocks her like a baby to force her to calm down (while Tracy tells her mother over and over how much she hates her) that stick with you, rather than the movie's vague final shot itself.
It's the moment mother and daughter are finally reunited, their issues laid bare after being manipulated by the same negative force. Ultimately, the struggle has brought them together. They're both fragile in their own ways but Mel's complete refusal to abandon her kid is what finally breaks Tracy, and it's never clearer than when her mother cradles her on the same floor she tore apart.
The movie is shot in moody greys and blues, but Hunter emanates a light from within throughout, an irresistible warmth. She's like the Californian sun itself, shining even in the film's darkest moments. When Mel desperately demands that Tracy be "civil" to her, it's painfully sad chiefly because she's asking her for so little, while giving her so much.