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The kids are not alright: two views of lost youth

Catherine Hardwicke's "Thirteen" is the startling tale of Tracy, a lower-middle class Los Angeles teen who falls under the influence of a more popular girl and goes on a rampage of sex, drugs, shoplifting, and starvation. The movie, which opened here Friday, has been courting controversy and concern: Could our daughters be next? It's a fear the movie bolsters by depicting a parent-daughter relationship that is at its best toxic and at its worst nuclear. When Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) misbehaves, the movie has a way of slapping you upside the head with the news. Headline: "Self-destructive Teens -- And They're 13!"

It's reminiscent of August 1995, when photographer Larry Clark's "Kids" presented a five-alarm nightmare of urban teens raping, bludgeoning, spreading AIDS, and just existing in a general state of foulness whose cause was unspecified. It wasn't a report of youth in revolt. It was delinquency as a matter of fact.

As art, "Kids" was powerful -- the images lingered, and a deep fissure was created between boys' perception of sex and girls' knowledge of its risks. And it was creepy: Clark's camera didn't flinch at anything. So if you haven't seen "Kids" in a few years, the sight of girls doing nitrous oxide and fooling around with each other in "Thirteen" might make Clark's film seem quaint. Not so. It's still a brutal affair.

"Thirteen" has the temerity to show a girl falling apart, and while it locates a change in Tracy, the movie doesn't risk true tragedy because it has to emerge from the other side of its adolescent horror to tell you that everything can be fine for your kids. Some would argue that Tracy's violent identity crisis is tragedy enough. Still, no lambs are led to slaughter, no martyrs made. The film is less a passion play than a knowing school production hooked up to an amp.

"Kids" is more devastating as art that makes you draw your own conclusions. Clark was in his early 40s when he directed the movie from a script by Harmony Korine, who was 19 at the time. Korine was a skater in New York's Washington Square Park, and it was his idea to cast his friends.

Hardwicke wrote "Thirteen" with Nikki Reed, who, at the time, was the film's eponymous age. Hardwicke spent most of her film career as a production designer and was a friend of Reed's family. The girl dictated, while the woman shaped the story and cast her in the role of Evie, the terror who puts Tracy under her spell.

But is "Thirteen" the new "Kids"? Yes and no. "Kids" is apocalyptic, where "Thirteen" is not.

Both movies take visual-media culture for granted, but neither uses popular culture as a scapegoat. "Kids" exists in a vacuum of pessimism and blamelessness. There's a scene in which its two monsters, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) and Casper (Justin Pierce), go to Telly's apartment, where he asks his mother for money after he's already stolen from her. Afterward the camera lingers on her face long enough to know there's no saving the world from her son, or her son from himself.

In "Thirteen," Hardwicke strategically places her semaphores -- including bus-stop ads that read "Beauty is truth" -- but there's never a shot of the girls sipping pop culture. Tracy's ostensible role model is her mom, a recovering alcoholic, divorcee, and woman who has a tough time saying no, aiming for friendship with a daughter who desperately needs a mother.

Fox Searchlight, the distributor of "Thirteen," sees the potential for people to discuss the plight of teenage girls. The studio has been holding special screenings around the country followed by panel discussions. I went to one in Harvard Square, where the film was treated as an urgent public service announcement and the parents who stayed were looking for solutions to this problem.

When "Kids" came out, there were no panel discussions to help curb teen promiscuity and drug abuse. I was 19 then, and most of what was mind-blowing about the movie was how Telly, Casper, and their friends seemed to be another race of teenager, equal but separate. There is no "before"; there's no "after" either, just a raw and unadulterated present tense: They were born this way, the movie seemed to say. It was an inhuman snapshot. "Thirteen," meanwhile, suggests that broken homes break kids. The film has a beginning, a middle, and end, over the course of which Tracy goes from good egg to bad seed. By the time it's over, you'd like to believe she's a plant that just needs a good repotting. That such a hope crosses an audience's mind is a testament to Hardwicke's compassion and her optimism. Her movie is a cry for help, where Clark's is a deep, disturbingly blank stare. Clark, to his credit, wanted the filth to make its way on to you.

Where the filmmaker stood on all this was ambiguous, and it had to be: Blighted youth was how Clark made his living. If there were no 15-year-old boys who skated and sniffed and killed, there'd likely be no Clark. Clark himself was a strung-out wastrel with an impressive rap sheet, and in "Tulsa," his career-making book of photographs from 1971, he captured Middle American youth culture as a grim outlaw society.

The pictures were shocking for the time: The country's wholesome young Sooners, its cornhuskers, burned on LSD, guns in their hands and tucked in their pants. It forced America to recognize that drugs, violence, crime, illicit sex, and overall scuzziness were not the exclusive province of its inner cities. So Clark's work had an unmistakable anthropological-journalistic pull, but there's also a transparent wistfulness about them.

In 1983, Clark released "Teenage Lust." This time the focus was on the young runaways he'd been photographing in the mid- to late '70s. He was in his 30s but still got a charge out of capturing young prostitutes and drug-abusing teens -- with the sort of you-are-there-ness of a war photographer like Robert Capa. But Clark's lens tended to ogle, as though "Teenage Lust" were a bid to top "Tulsa" on the shocking titillation front. In "Kids," his teenage disregard for everything achieved a kind of apotheosis.

From "Thirteen," you get the sense that Hardwicke would never go near this sort of material again. She doesn't abuse the privilege of looking as a license to leer. Sure, she slips in the occasional glory shot -- that slo-mo arm-in-arm walk the girls take is right out of the bad-teen cult flick "Jawbreaker." But with jittery, careering camerawork, the picture uncannily duplicates how girls make a fetish of spending, how they zero in on where to put accessories -- how ultimately they dress for each other, not for boys.

There are two other jarring observations about a "Kids"-"Thirteen" double bill. The first is how much harder the girls in "Thirteen" seem. The girls in "Kids" didn't seem out to shock in the way the boys were. In 1995, girls weren't the mega-spenders they are now; there were no global pop stars in whose image they wanted to live. And there were no corresponding images of fluctuating identities in the film either. "Thirteen" is quietly about the frenzy girls feel to consume -- clothes, boys, each other.

If the girls now seem as destructive as the boys, culturally, no time seems to have passed between the two films. Both films implicitly offer hip-hop as the predominant youth culture, a melange of race and class.

You could say the glassy-eyed indifference of "Kids" was bound to explode into the simple rage of "Thirteen," which feels like a 100-minute-long punk-pop record. Where the anger comes from is unclear. Maybe it's from everywhere -- the way it did in every decade of the latter half of the last century. What's evident is we may be smart enough to identify youth in angst, but we're powerless to stop it. All we can do is watch.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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