13 Going on 30

(Suddenly 30, Gary Winick, USA, 2004)


13 Going on 30 begins from a familiar what-if premise. Young Jenna (Christa B. Allen) is impatient to be an adult. She wants her breasts to grow, she pines to be accepted by the cool girl-gang known as the Six Chicks, and she occasionally takes her sweet, dorky friend Matt (Sean Marquette) for granted.

Jenna wishes just a little too hard in the proximity of some magical powder, and – voilà! – she is suddenly a woman (Jennifer Garner). But she has no idea who the naked man in her bathroom is – it sure is not Matt – or how to edit the fashion magazine Poise. And something is definitely up with her disgruntled assistant, Lucy (Judy Greer).

Time-travel fantasies have to repress more reality than most Hollywood entertainments. This film manages to make not a single reference to changes in the political landscape between 1987 and now. Even on the level of a comedy of manners, it sidesteps most opportunities for fun: Jenna's only moment of disorientation occurs when her mobile phone starts playing music.

Director Gary Winick, working much more comfortably here than in the low budget, digitally shot Tadpole (2002), is most interested in the romance angle. He has terrific actors to help him out. Garner is a delight as the girl-in-a-woman's body, happiest when she can bond with fellow thirteen-year-olds. And it will henceforth surely be every teenage male geek's dream to evolve from the shyness and obesity of young Matt into the body and charm of Mark Ruffalo.

Winick and his writers Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa reveal their higher ambitions only in a buried allusion to Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Like Jimmy Stewart in that film, Jenna has the opportunity to observe how her life has worked out on the basis of certain key decisions. And she comes to wish she could have done it all differently.

On this moral level, 13 Going on 30 is a curious document. It manages to make the cautious attitude of a thirteen-year-old virgin the standard bearer for the 'new values' which are in essence really very old values that we have supposedly, collectively lost. As in It's a Wonderful Life, a furiously nostalgic apologia for the social status quo is here being etched between the lines.

On the other hand, Winick has learnt enough from Capra's masterpiece to know that even the most fairy-tale-like piece of feel-good fluff must take at least a little glimpse into the abyss of unhappiness. The way 13 Going on 30 dances between the possibilities of alternative up-beat and down-beat outcomes creates quite a frisson.

Mainly, however, this film is about a bunch of songs from the '80s – and it is surely targeted, above all, at those who were young twenty years ago.

Whenever Jenna needs to say something profound, she reaches for lyrics from Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield". She saves a dying office party by dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller". And the pathos of her difficult romance with the grown-up Matt is captured in scenes overlaid by Madonna's "Crazy For You" and even (improbably) Billy Joel's "Vienna". (With these song-associations come, inevitably, teen-movie associations: Vision Quest [1985], Footloose [1984] ... )

As someone who came of age in the '80s, I entirely and willingly fell for this expert piece of cultural manipulation.

© Adrian Martin August 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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