13-year-old Tracy Freeland begins her school year as a smart and sweet honor student at a middle school in Los Angeles. Her divorced mother Melanie is a recovering alcoholic, who struggles to support Tracy and her older brother Mason by working as a hairdresser. Tracy feels ignored by her mother, who is too busy with her fellow ex-addict boyfriend Brady to address Tracy's increasing depression. After being teased for her "Cabbage Patch" clothes, Tracy decides to shed her "little girl" image and gets her mother to purchase trendier clothes.
When Tracy wears one of her new outfits to school, she is complimented by Evie Zamora, one of the most popular girls at school. Evie invites Tracy to go shopping on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood but gives her a fake phone number as a prank. Nevertheless, Tracy determinedly shows up on Melrose Avenue and meets up with Evie and her friend Astrid. Tracy is uncomfortable with the two shoplifting and excuses herself to sit outside the store on a bench.
When a distracted rich woman sits next to Tracy, Tracy takes the chance to steal the woman's wallet, which impresses Evie and Astrid. The three go on a shopping spree with the stolen money and Tracy and Evie become fast friends. Evie introduces Tracy to her world of sex, drugs, and criminal activity, much to Tracy's delight. When Evie tells Melanie that her legal guardian/cousin Brooke sent her an email, about going to a convention in Bakersfield for two weeks, she temporarily moves into the Freeland household and discovers that Tracy regularly cuts herself to cope with stress. The two promise to stay friends forever and continue with their self-destructive exploits. Although Melanie is concerned about the change in Tracy's behavior and worries about the extent of Evie's influence, she cannot find a way to intervene. Melanie attempts to send Evie home but Evie claims her guardian's boyfriend is physically abusive. A torn Melanie reluctantly agrees to let her stay. As Tracy and Evie become closer, Tracy shuts Melanie further out of her life.
Evie and Tracy get increasingly out of control, each egging the other on. The pair attempt to seduce Tracy's neighbor Luke, a lifeguard in his early twenties, and ditch a family movie night to get high on the streets. Mason is shocked when he bumps into Tracy wearing sexualized clothing, including thong underwear, but Tracy dismisses his concerns. Later on, the girls take turns inhaling from a can of gas duster for computers for fun and become so intoxicated that they hit each other, accidentally drawing blood.
Melanie attempts to break the girl's friendship by sending Tracy to live with her father but he refuses. Meanwhile, Melanie goes over to Brooke's house, with Tracy and Evie, to find out what is going on, because she's been calling Brooke for two weeks. They find that Brooke was hiding because of bad plastic surgery she received. Evie asks Melanie to formally adopt her but Melanie refuses. Tracy meekly supports her mother's decision. Angry and hurt, a tearful Evie storms off. At school, Evie turns all her friends against Tracy and, depressed, Tracy slowly begins to realize the negative effects of her lifestyle when she is told she might have to repeat the seventh grade. To her surprise, Brady finds her walking home from school and takes her home where Melanie, Evie, and Brooke are sitting quietly in the living room waiting for her.
Brooke confronts Tracy about her drug use and stealing, having been convinced that Tracy was the bad influence by Evie. Outraged, Tracy insists that Evie was the instigator to everything, but the skeptic Brooke refuses to listen and announces that she is moving Evie to Ojai to keep her away from Tracy. Melanie defends Tracy's innocence but then Brooke pulls Tracy's sleeve up to show Melanie Tracy's self-harm scars, showing that Tracy was troubled long before she ever met Evie. After a screaming match, Brooke and Evie leave. Tracy weeps in Melanie's arms and attempts to fight against her mother's love, but Melanie embraces her and insists that she loves Tracy regardless. Tracy tearfully pleads with Melanie to let go, with no success. The two fall asleep on Tracy's bed. The last scene shows a dream sequence of Tracy spinning alone and screaming on a park merry-go-round during the daytime.
Director Catherine Hardwicke has called Nikki Reed a "surrogate daughter", having known her since she was 5 years old. The two began the screenplay as a comedy project which would be shot to video at minimal cost. The screenplay was written in 6 days and quickly shifted into a tale of early teen angst and self-destruction in Los Angeles, with Tracy's character drawn from Reed's own recent experiences as a pre and early teen. Hardwicke didn't think it would be fitting for Reed to play Tracy and auditioned hundreds of girls for the part.
After becoming aware of Evan Rachel Wood, Hardwicke came to believe she could make the film only with Wood in the role of Tracy and only that year, with Wood at that age.
Hardwicke has said Holly Hunter's agreement to play the role of Tracy's mother Melanie was a key boost to bringing the production together. About $2,000,000 was then raised, almost all through independent equity financing, a very low budget for any American film meant for general cinematic release in the early 21st century. Most of the adult actors were widely known and all of them reportedly agreed to low pay because they liked the script along with other members of the cast and crew. Wood and Reed were both 14 during filming (Wood turned 15 during the shoot). Most of the film was shot in August 2002 in Los Angeles, California.
Their first audition together was at Hardwicke's house, which wound up as a slumber party that night. Auditions took place on a bed in Catherine Hardwicke's house, and when Hardwicke auditioned Wood, she had her get into her bed with Nikki Reed. The wardrobe worn by the girls was mostly their own. As filming progressed, the girls began dressing similarly without being asked to do so. The girls did not take any dangerous substances during the film. They are shown smoking cigarettes, but these were filled mostly with catnip. The crushed pills they are shown snorting from the cover of a children's book were harmless dietary supplements.
All of the scenes in which Tracy cut herself were shot in a single day; Wood recalled running to her brother for emotional support between some takes. Wood later described the shooting of the two make out scenes with Javi and Luke as "awkward" because her family was watching behind the scenes. Wood's mom requested that in the scenes with Tracy's bra exposed, that the front of her not be seen on camera. The whole scene with Luke was rendered in a single, long and uncut take with Wood, Reed and Pardue, but was tightly choreographed with several crew members, social workers and parents also in the small room, carefully staying either hidden or behind the camera as it panned more than 200°, showing all four walls.
The movie was shot on lower-cost super 16mm film. The camera was small, had a Panavision lens and was mostly hand-held by cinematographer Elliot Davis. This allowed shooting in very tight spots, such as in the bathroom. One tracking scene was shot with the camera mounted on a discarded shopping cart, which the crew happened to find nearby.
Most of the scenes were filmed on location, with some on Melrose Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, Venice Beach. The Freeland home scenes were shot at a rented house in the San Fernando Valley. The many outdoor school scenes were shot at Portola Middle School in Tarzana, most of them on a single Saturday in searing heat. Many of the extras were students and a few were crew members.
Some scenes in the film were carefully and colorfully lit, while others were shot only with whatever daylight could be had. The shooting schedule was limited to less than a month. The underage actors could work only five-and-a-half hours each day, closely watched by a paid social worker.
This made for a frenetic production atmosphere, which cast and crew later said matched the script and added to the film's fast and emotionally taut pace. The film stock was transferred to the digital domain wherein the colors and saturation were highly manipulated for some segments. The beginning of the film was very slightly desaturated in the scenes before Tracy became friends with Evie. Once they became friends, the saturation was increased to a "glowy" effect, according to Hardwicke. After the scene where Evie and Tracy make out with Luke, the saturation slowly becomes less and less until the end of the film, especially after Evie is told that she can't live with Tracy anymore and Tracy is abandoned by the popular group.
Thirteen was picked up by a major distributor only after production was completed. Because of the film's R rating in North America, the underage stars had to be accompanied by adults to see it at public showings. Reed stated in 2012 that she regrets the way she portrayed her family in the autobiographical film, saying, "I wrote this movie about them and their flaws and imperfections and what it was like growing up. It was from one kid's perspective and not a well rounded one. You get older and it's like, how dare I portray my father as being a totally vacant careless schmuck?"
Thirteen debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 to critical acclaim, and Wood, Hunter, and Reed were praised for their performances. The film has a rating of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 150 reviews with a rating average of 7.3 out of 10. The site's consensus reads: "An emotionally wrenching, not to mention terrifying, film about the perils of being a teenager."
Holly Hunter was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Both Hunter and Evan Rachel Wood were nominated for Golden Globes the same year, respectively for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress in a Drama.
The score was written by Mark Mothersbaugh. The soundtrack includes songs by Kinnie Starr and Carmen Rizzo, Liz Phair, Clinic, Folk Implosion, Imperial Teen, Katy Rose, The Like, and MC 900 Ft. Jesus.