When "Thirteen" director Catherine Hardwicke noticed that her seventh-grade friend Nikki, normally bubbly and engaging, was acting rebellious, she stepped in.
"[Nikki] was angry ... yelling at her mom," recalls Ms. Hardwicke. "She would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and spend two hours on her hair and makeup ... because she wanted to fit in with the cool girls. She didn't care much about anything else."
So Hardwicke, who once dated Nikki's father and has known her since she was 5, took her surfing, and on outings to museums, and photo exhibitions "to open her mind up," she says. "I didn't preach, we just did stuff."
When Nikki showed an interest and talent for acting, Hardwicke spotted an opportunity.
She challenged Nikki, then 13, to write and star in her own screenplay. For six days during her winter break, the two cobbled together a story based on Nikki's growing pains. The result is the R-rated "Thirteen," a far cry from bubble-gum fare like "The Lizzie McGuire Movie." Instead, "Thirteen," which debuted Aug. 20, offers an eye-opening, gritty portrait of seventh graders who experiment with every bad influence imaginable - drinking, sex, shoplifting, and drug use.
"I wanted to help put parents into the mind set of being 13, and help 13-year-olds get into the mind set of being parents," says Hardwicke. "I wanted the film to feel like a teen - jumpy and dramatic." The camera moves are jerky and the characters' moods swing sharply, from carefree conversations about clothes to angry conflicts with adults.
Evan Rachel Wood plays 13-year-old Tracy, who changes from a role-model honor student to a suicidal rabble-rouser when she befriends Evie (Nikki's character), the ringleader of the cool crowd.
Holly Hunter plays Mel, Tracy's desperate but strong single mom, who struggles to understand her daughter. "Thirteen" won a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and Hardwicke took home a prize for best director.
"We would work on a scene together. And I would say [to Nikki], 'OK, how would your character do this?" says Hardwicke, also a film-production designer who is making her directorial debut. Nikki would say, 'She would talk to her mom like this.' We also acted it out."
For Nikki, now 15, writing was perhaps the worst part. "Writing the screenplay wasn't exciting, it was painful," she says. "But if someone had predicted then that Fox Searchlight would pick up the film, it would have been much more exciting. The acting and doing stuff was fun."
When they finished writing a week later, they shopped their screenplay around, but actors and distributors didn't want to touch it because it was too risky. "We had a hard time," Nikki recalls. But once Holly Hunter signed on, Fox Searchlight gave it the green light.
Six months later they started filming, completing the picture for under $2 million. Some of the characters, events, and the L.A. public-school setting in "Thirteen" were based on Nikki's real-life experiences, but the movie is not autobiographical, she says. "Yes, I have my tongue pierced, but my mom took me [to have it done]," Nikki says.
She adds that the peer pressures, cliques, and low self-esteem depicted in the movie are typical for many 13-year-olds.
Hardwicke says it's harder for teens today because of increased sexualization of girls in the media. After spending time with Nikki and her friends she found "boys would comment on their bodies in a rude way, and you'd think, 'I'm supposed to look like Christina or Britney or J. Lo.' It's harder for them.... Lots of 13-year-olds have to find themselves."
Another parallel between the movie and Nikki's life is the chasm between mother and daughter. "[Nikki's] biggest struggle was between her and her mom," says Hardwicke, "but she and her mom were past that point when I came in. I missed the toughest stuff."
In the film, Mel is a loving, hardworking hairdresser who works at home so she can be close to her kids. Nikki's real mom did the same. "She gave lots of love to her kids," Hardwicke says. Nikki and Hardwicke say they hope "Thirteen" helps parents and teens understand one another better.
Despite the film's hot-button topics and explicit dialogue,Hardwicke and Nikki agree life at a real public middle school in L.A. is rougher. In "Thirteen," "nobody got pregnant or arrested, or went to the hospital," Hardwicke says.
"I don't think that what the girls are doing [in the film] is extreme," Nikki says. "If this were a movie about 20-year-olds, it would be rated G. It's because of the age, 13, that all of this seems extreme." Regarding teens who are dealing with peer pressure, Nikki offers some advice: "[You] will get through it. Just surround yourself with good people."