Long before Euphoria, there was Thirteen.
Catherine Hardwicke’s R-rated slice-of-life drama about an honors student (Evan Rachel Wood) whose relationship with her mother (Holly Hunter) is put to the test when a new friend (Nikki Reed) introduces her to sex, drugs and petty crime stunned audiences when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2003 and subsequently released in theaters 20 years ago Sunday.
“I like elevating things,” Hardwicke (Twilight, Mafia Mamma) tells us in a recent interview. “I wanted you to feel how the hormones are raging and what it feels like to be a kid when everything matters.”
Hardwicke was a prolific production designer working with the likes of Cameron Crowe, Richard Linklater and David O. Russell in the 1990s and early 2000s when she teamed with Reed — then 14, and the daughter of an ex-boyfriend — to write the script for Thirteen in only six days. “We really tried to [show] what it felt like to be a teenager, and just going through all the crazy pressures from the outside world,” Hardwicke says.
But while Euphoria, the Emmy-winning sensation starring Zendaya that offers an often heavy and jarring depiction of contemporary female teendom, was produced with the backing of the hit-making network HBO, Hollywood was far more cautious of similar content when Hardwicke and Reed shopped their script around town two decades ago.
“I mean, every studio and every financier said, ‘No, we can’t make it. How could we make a movie that’s gonna be R-rated with an unknown 13-year-old girl in the lead?’ Everybody said no,” Hardwicke says.
The film was ultimately produced with a budget of about $2 million, which Hardwicke raised through independent equity financing. It was shot in Los Angeles over 24 days.
“We made it by hook or crook, you know? And for no money. I got paid three bucks the whole time. But when we finally made it, people were like, ‘Oh, it’s powerful. It’s moving. It’s relevant in a way to what people are going through.’”
After the film premiered to raves and a directing award for Hardwicke at the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight acquired the film and eventually set it for theatrical release on Aug. 20, 2003. It ultimately earned over $10 million, scored bravura reviews (“An emotionally wrenching, not to mention terrifying, film about the perils of being a teenager,” reads the critical consensus of Rotten Tomatoes’s 81 percent approval rating) and heaps of honors, including Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Hunter, SAG nominations for Wood and Hunter and an Independent Spirit Award win for Reed.
“That’s my little baby,” Hardwicke says now of the film. “You know, I saw what Nikki Reed was going through at 13… Holly Hunter, Evan Rachel Wood, their performances are still so strong if you watch it now because they put their hearts into it. They felt it. They lived it on the day. So I love that film.”
And it’s still resonating with teens today, the filmmaker says.
“Even now on TikTok, there’s like 1.6 billion interactions with Thirteen. People are seeing clips and they’re writing in the comments, ‘That happened to me last week with my mom.’ So because it was quite honest and had real emotions, it’s still relevant to a lot of people.”
Hardwicke and Reed reunited five years ago when the director cast the actress as vampire Rosalie Hale in The Twilight Saga. But the pair have long discussed continuing The Thirteen Saga.
“We have talked about [it], I talk to Nikki a lot,” Hardwicke says. “We really wanna do a TV series where we see other 13-year-old girls: Thirteen Afghanistan, Thirteen Detroit. You know, let’s see how other 13-year-old girls are navigating their transition into adulthood.”
Thirteen is available to stream on Apple TV.