At The Movies: 13 Going on 30 (2004)


13 Going on 30


2004 • 97 minutes • Columbia Pictures

Alright, let’s just go ahead and call it a theme week: it’s (Clare Confronts the Inevitable Fact She Coalesced Into an Almost Person in the) Aughts Week! Between this and Wednesday’s review of Ex Machina, I feel like I’m floating in the goo what made me. It’s not so much that I desperately miss the early aughts—Bush was president, the fashion was terrible, and I was still too dumb to realize I was queer—but rather that the nostalgia I derive from it feels a lot sharper than the secondhand nostalgia I huff off of eighties ephemera. Sure, it comes with a lot more sighing and a lot fewer gleeful air guitar riffs, but that’s kind of special, too.

Not that I ever actually watched 13 Going on 30 when it came out in theaters. I was busy floundering in the wake of the end of The Lord of the Rings, holding onto Pirates of the Caribbean for dear life. In fact, my only impression of this movie was a vague conviction that Andy Serkis was the romantic lead instead of Mark Ruffalo. (I MEAN WHY NOT? IT’S WHAT AMERICA WANTS!) Of course, all it took was hearing that it took place partly in the eighties to get me to actually watch it.

So, a summary, for those of you who weren’t teenage girls in the aughts (you lucky ducks, you missed out on the Legolas/Aragorn wars): in the eighties, Jenna is excited to celebrate her thirteenth birthday with a party attended by the coolest guys and girls in school, but embarrassed by her best friend, the deeply uncool Matty. Despite Matty’s thoughtful gift of a Jenna-inspired Dream House covered in mail-order wishing dust, she nonetheless insults him to impress the cool kids. But they end up playing a hideous prank on her, locking her in the closet. Crying, she wishes to be “thirty, flirty, and thriving” (a la an issue of her favorite magazine, Poise). The wishing dust grants her wish, and she wakes up as an adult—seventeen years later. With no memory of the intervening years, Jenna tries to navigate her adult life as best she can. She’s delighted to discover that she has an amazing apartment, a well-stocked walk-in closet, and a great job at Poise, but she’s devastated to find out she’s alienated from her family and her childhood best friend. Jenna sets out to thrive in her new life, as only a thirteen year old from the eighties can.

Someone on Twitter—I don’t remember who, I don’t remember when—pointed out that Jenna is the rare, perhaps unique, Manic Pixie Dream Girl who improves her own life. (I feel like it was Noelle Stevenson? But I can’t dig up the relevant tweet, even after learning Twitter has a very fancy advanced search function.) She’s sweet, kooky, and eagerly determined in the way that seems copyrighted by smart preteen girls dying to make an impact. The plot isn’t, to my great relief, about Jenna having abandoned a chance at true love with Matty for a career. (The movie actually revels in how good Jenna, even thirteen year old Jenna, is at magazine editing.) It’s about how her childhood abandonment of Matty was the first in a series of abandonments that turned Jenna into the dark, cruel version of Jenna that we never see. The problem is not that she’s career-driven; the problem is that she treats people like garbage. And even a late in the game change of heart can’t fix all the damage she’s done. To see a bubbly romantic comedy threaten to end on such a downer note is honestly thrilling.

It doesn’t, of course—Jenna gets to go back in time to the eighties and fix everything. Although, infuriatingly, we see only a clip of Jenna’s wedding, instead of an awesome montage of Jenna succeeding in every avenue of her adult life set to “Head over Heels.” The politics of the last five minutes of a film tell you everything, kittens. But the film remains a romantic comedy with a subversive, if slightly thwarted, heart.

I can’t believe I’ve managed to write this much without talking about Jennifer Garner’s performance as teen Jenna in adult Jenna’s body. (Adorably, Garner loved the actress playing teen Jenna so much that she insisted she be cast again as a younger version of herself in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.) In 2004, Garner was best known for her award-winning work on Alias, but wanted to do something a little different than a thriller. The end result feels like all of Garner’s built-up good vibes just bubbled to the surface as Jenna. She is honestly luminescent in the role, exuding intense joy, eagerness, and coltish awkwardness from every pore. Even her childish physicality is absolutely dead-on, absolutely capturing being a little kid in an unfamiliar body. She gets a lot of comedic mileage out of it, but also dramatic mileage. There’s a scene in the film when Jenna, spooked by the bridges she’s burned, visits her parents, and everything—from echoing teenage Jenna crying in the closet to getting in bed with her parents because she’s so spooked by a thunder storm—is so vulnerable and humanizing. Everyone else in the film does perfectly well (especially Mark Ruffalo), but I’m starting to suspect it’s Garner’s work that makes 13 Going on 30 an unlikely early aughts classic.

My roommate rented this DVD from the public library.

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