Now that all the major studios have either absorbed former independents (Miramax, October) or created "indie" arms of their own (Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics), it's hard to remember the days when independent film was an end in itself instead of a stepping stone to a Hollywood career. With its no-frills production values and rough-hewn scrapbook realism, David Williams' quietly exceptional Thirteen is a reminder of what homemade cinema can accomplish. It's telling that only now, three years after it started making the festival rounds, is the film receiving any kind of theatrical distribution. Touching, humane, and frequently hilarious, Thirteen refers to the age of its heroine, a shy and sullen but determined black girl struggling through a difficult transitional period. Covering exactly one year in her life, from birthday to birthday, Williams sketches a rich psychological portrait from fragments and episodes, tied together with affecting voiceover narration by the girl's earthy and patient mother (Lillian Folley). Leading a cast of impressive non-professionals, Wilhamenia Dickens deflects easy sympathy as a teenage woman-child driven by impulsive behavior that often baffles the people who care about her. One day, she simply disappears from her Virginia home and hitchhikes to the mountains; just as nonchalantly, she returns to her worried mother and a couple of social workers, offering little explanation. ("I wanted to be by myself for a few.") A larger section of the film is taken up by her bizarre quest to earn money to buy a new car, as she persistently hustles for odd jobs doing yard work, babysitting children and animals, and even inquiring about a position in real estate. That no one seems to mind that she can't drive is one of many offhandedly funny touches that spring up throughout. Rendered with startling verisimilitude and a genuine feeling for the region to rival Victor Nunez's (Ruby In Paradise, Ulee's Gold) North Florida, Thirteen is refreshingly low-key and unpretentious, so much so that it nearly slipped through the cracks. Now that Williams' superb character study has been revived, it deserves to be discovered and treasured.
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