Bad girls, talking about the sad girls
Catherine Hardwicke
Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Sisto
The Setup: 
Sweet girl turns rotten as she falls under another’s bad influence.

I was aware of this movie for a while, but never became that interested, because I had read too many reviews saying that it just reveled in bad teen behavior, continually topping itself with tsk-tsk-inducing moments of how naughty a young teenage girl could be. Then I started to realize that I need a LOT more hand-wringing drama about wayward teens in my life, and once I saw Evan Rachel Wood in The Wrestler, I knew this had to go right to the top of my list.

We open with Wood, then 16, as Tracy, on a bed, huffing computer dust remover and asking her friend, Evie, to hit her in the face. They hit each other harder and harder and then—title! We now flash back four months, to find Tracy as a nice teenager with stuffed animals on her bed. Her mother, Melanie or Mel for short, runs a hairstyling business out of their California home. We first start to notice her mother’s Alcoholics Anonymous involvement when she dumps Tracy with babysitting and says she “HAS to go to a meeting.”

It seems like the first day of school, and Tracy can’t help but notice uber-popular girl Evie, who looks and dresses like a miniature Eva Longoria. Evie and her friends make fun of Tracy’s socks, saying “Who let HER out of the cabbage patch?” which causes Tracy to go home and throw out her socks and all the stuffed animals. She thinks she looks like a dork and tells her mom so, and rather than tell her that it’s what’s inside that counts and she should concentrate on her own inner strengths and not worry about what others say—her mom instead takes her out shopping for a new wardrobe. Only they’re not exactly rich, so they but clothes out of the back of a van run by a Mexican lady. The next day Evie notices Tracy, and tells her to call after school, they’ll go shopping on Melrose. Turns out the number she gives her is fake, but determined Tracy gets on a bus and goes down there anyway. In here is a sequence in which we see Tracy looking in wonder at all the billboards for upscale clothing brands, and we notice that the camera lingers on a poster that says “Beauty is Truth.” Keep an eye out for this ad, folks, it’ll keep turning up. Also, by way of trivia, note that the face on the ad is that of Nikki Reed, who plays Evie.

Tracy finds Evie and friend in a store, shoplifting. They ignore her until she steals a woman’s wallet, now has money, and offers to take them shopping—instant friends! When Tracy gets home, she is thrilled with her achievement in having hung out with Evie.

She hangs out with Evie more, and starts doing worse and worse things. They smoke. Evie gets money by selling drugs. Tracy starts to blow off her old friends, and not even to acknowledge them. Evie gets her high and they hang out with black boys, who seem to want to get the girls involved in sex. We notice that the entire movie is filmed with handheld camera, which allows for a lot of shots following characters through many rooms of the house. And then, again, I’m forced to wonder: Do hot girls and women REALLY get dolled up and walk arm in arm down the street, tossing their hair? Dear female reader of CdM, how many times have YOU actually done this?

Oh, and by the way, I LOVE every movie in which every establishing shot of a high school is accompanied by a loud burst of hip teenage pop music!

So Evie pressures Tracy into getting her tongue pierced. She’s also moving in on Tracy’s mom, calling her ‘Mel’ intimately, and kissing her goodbye when Tracy herself won’t. When the girls are in the kitchen all dolled up, Mel, who dresses and keeps herself in a youthful, sexy manner, says “You’re not the only J. Lo’s in the house.” When Mel starts to get uneasy with Evie—who has essentially moved into the house—Evie lays out a bunch of claptrap about being abused by her stepfather. Evie lives with her cousin, Brooke, who is a former unsuccessful model and actress and is now a bartender. One of the creepiest moments is when we see that Brooke goes to work as a “bartender” dressed as a hooker in a bright candy-red wig.

Meanwhile Evie is becoming more manipulative. She sneaks out of Tracy’s window to have a date with black guy KayKay, leaving Tracy out. Tracy then goes to the bathroom and we see that she has been cutting herself. When Evie gets home and climbs into bed, seeing her bleeding wrists, she says “I love you, Tracy,” and kisses her. More goes on, but I’ll leave it for you to discover. But I will advise you to look out for the different appearances of the “Beauty is Truth” sign, including one in which it appears, defaced by graffiti. Also notice how the color tone starts shifting into desaturated blue as matters grow hopeless, and take note of when it abruptly shifts back into full color.

It was much better than I expected it to be, and turned out to be quite good. As I said, I went in expecting some exploitation about how very dirty and nasty teenage girls could be, but instead got a serious story of a wayward parasite girl who attaches onto a victim she can leach off of for as long as she’ll last, before moving on to someone else. It also distinguishes itself in its unusual depth of psychology and its fully-rounded view of the changes these characters would go through.

We see Tracy at the beginning, a relatively wholesome girl who aspires to be popular and who sneaks a cigarette every now and then as a rebellion. She is intoxicated with the sudden popularity she gets from associating with Evie, and revels in how bad she can be, how much she can test her mother and take subtle revenge for the frustrations with her mother that have been building up over the years. We see traces of her being truly shocked at some of the things she is doing—or that she sees Evie doing and feels that she must also do. And over time she seems to feel that she has made herself so unlovable in the eyes of her mother that she could never again go back or ask for forgiveness [like in the wonderful Somersault]. So as her supposed friendship with Evie grows stronger, she feels ever-more isolated and trapped, leading to her self-mutilation in the second half of the film. And while Wood has always vaguely annoyed me in other films, I have to say that here her performance really hits one out of the park in terms of subtlety and being absolutely convincing.

The other major performance [Nikki Reed is very good, too] is Holly Hunter as Mel. Rather than the saintly but too-uptight mother we might expect, Mel is a recovering alcoholic who is herself wrapped up in conventional, consumerist ideals of beauty and glamour [and fighting her own aging], so she is incapable of giving Tracy the guidance to look inside for strength when she needs it. Mel also has a wheelbarrow full of her own issues, what with her addiction recovery, and too often simply lets herself be bowled over by the force of her daughter’s rebellion, rendered impotent and forces to retreat in exasperation. Her performance is definitely Oscar-worthy, and was justifiably nominated for this.

The problem with a story like this is that it leaves itself very few places to go in terms of a conclusion: Tracy can either be lost forever or saved, and either of them are things we’ve seen many times before. The ending here is handled very well [aside from a disastrous final tacked-on sequence], but still comes as a bit of a cliché and diminishes all that came before to a significant degree. But the majority of the film is a very solid drama of depth and marvelous performances, and that’s what one should focus on.

Should you watch it: 

You sure should.