Dear Thirteen (Journeyman Films/Grasshopper Film, NR)

Liminal spaces, times of transition from one state to another, are inherently dramatic because they’re all about change. That’s one reason so many novels, movies, and television series are set in junior high or high school: the characters have left childhood behind but aren’t yet adults, and their future is full of possibilities not yet realized. Plus their hormones are popping and their bodies are changing and they’ve just got a whole lot of stuff to deal with.

Alexis Neophytides’ documentary Dear Thirteen takes a look at what it means to be thirteen as experienced by nine  young people in the United States, Mexico, France, Nepal, and Australia. As a group they’re a remarkably thoughtful, self-aware, and articulate bunch, and while their lives aren’t always perfect, all seem to be doing well and looking forward to adulthood.

One classic coming-of-age ritual is included: Oren, from Lyon, is celebrating his bar mitzvah. When he tells his family “I’m leaving as a kid, and I’ll come back an an adult,” they laugh good-naturedly, because like most children in industrialized countries he will continue to live with his family and attend school for some years to come. And yet becoming 13 does mark an important passage in Judaism: previously Oren’s parents were responsible for his behavior, but now he must take responsibility for himself.

Evie, a young trans woman from Mornington, Australia, is facing another kind of transition: she’s beginning to take puberty blockers to prevent the physical changes she would otherwise experience in adolescence. It’s never easy to be different, and she used to get bullied for her nonconformity, but her family was always on her side. Today, she can confidently talk about her future plans and (she’d like to be an actress, and if that doesn’t work out, an obstetrician) and the dress she wants to wear at her wedding (a white Cinderella gown and white high heels).

Landon, in Arkansas, proudly displays his rifle collection, including his 13th birthday present, a black powder muzzleloader. As he and his grandfather skin a deer, he reflects that his life might seem odd to someone from another part of the world, but “you have to be in another person’s perspective to understand what they’re going through and what’s happening.”

In Kathmandu, Arti is one of eight children in her family. They immigrated from India to better their lives, and while she experiences discrimination as an ethnic minority, she also appreciates the chance to attend a school where she’s learning English and preparing for a career in business. Awa, an immigrant from Mali now living in New York City, is stressed out by high school applications, particularly those that ask her to write an essay answering the question “Who are you?” She finds this question ridiculous because “I still don’t know and I don’t want to be put into a stereotype” which suggest to me that she understands liminal spaces better than whoever designed the applications.

Unlike her girlfriends, Fany, in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico isn’t interested in romance: she says “my boyfriend is boxing” and has set herself an ambitious goal: to win a gold medal at the Olympics. She’s been training since she was 7, inspired by her grandfather’s successful career, and doesn’t mind the inevitable lumps and bumps which she considers just “part of the job.”  Julius, in Stockton, CA, raps under the name “Bud Bud Awsome”: we see him recording a video about police brutality and he relates the instructions he’s been given to survive an encounter with the police (something white children seldom receive). He’s been homeless and has been the target of bullying, but things are better today, and he’s optimistic about his future.

Madeline, “somewhere in New York,” records vlogs chronicling her daily life. Sometimes she’s serious, sometimes she’s goofy, and she certainly felt stressed out by the pandemic, but says that as she’s about to turn 14 she’s really figuring out who she is. In Vermont, budding politician Ethan mounts a campaign for governor with a platform of what he calls “practical progressivism and kitchen table issues” like healthcare, the economy, and education. He’s undaunted by being called a Communist and displays the kind of tact and good humor that will come in handy if he realizes his goal of running for president (an office he won’t be eligible to hold for another 22 years).

Dear Thirteen offers a pleasant look at the experience of being thirteen for an interesting selection of young people from different parts of the world. The process of filmmaking is not hidden but visible—you hear and sometimes see the director (who doubled as cinematographer) speaking to the subjects, a good choice for so unfussy a film. It’s all edited together expertly by Trina Rodriguez in a way that highlights both the similarities and the differences among the lives of the young people featured. | Sarah Boslaugh

Dear Thirteen is distributed by Journeyman Pictures, with educational distributed handled by Grashopper Film, and is available for streaming on multiple services. If you want to see what the film’s crew members looked like when they were thirteen, check out the film’s website

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