Just released on video and DVD, Thirteen and The Secret Lives of Dentists explore the rot that can fester in an American family. The dramatic quality and moral tenor of the two films could not be more different, however. Whereas Thirteen tries to slap a pretense of morality onto its sustained obsession with self-degrading adolescents, Dentists offers a convincing meditation on the way violations of the natural moral order manifest themselves in palpable ways and exact their own punishments.
Thirteen features the Golden Globe-nominated performance of Evan Rachel Wood as Tracy, a seemingly innocent teenager who comes under the influence of a seductive classmate, Evie (Nikki Reed), a girl who knows how to party and how to insinuate herself into and exploit Tracy’s family. With a few plot alterations, Thirteen would be nothing more than a movie on the Lifetime channel. But because it features teenage girls who appear to have been educated at Marquis de Sade Junior High, it has been glorified for its insights into the contemporary lives of American teens. In the “The Making of Thirteen,” a bonus section included on the DVD, Evan Rachel Wood states that the film provides a “glimpse of what everybody kind of goes through as a teenager.” What would those universal teenage experiences be? Apparently, they’re heavy drug use, theft, group sex, multiple body piercings, and attempted suicide.
The same bonus section includes incredible comments about what a normal girl Tracy is and what a “nice relationship” she has with her mom. To illustrate that point, the filmmakers play a clip where mom (Holly Hunter in a modest performance that inexplicably received an Oscar nomination) notices Tracy’s exposed panties and warmly adjusts them, saying. “Here, let me help before you get a wedgie from hell.” “Nice” indeed, but the crucial background story here is one of parental separation and neglect. Tracy’s ire is repeatedly provoked at the presence of mom’s live-in boyfriend. Dad is almost never present. When he does visit, his son urges him that the family is in trouble and needs his help, to which the father responds with dismissive frustration, “What’s the problem?”
The parents are as immature as the children. The mom, upon whose culpably naïve compassion Evie plays, seems to want to remain ignorant of her daughter’s decline. When she can no longer avoid seeing the extent of it, her daughter taunts her, “You knew what was going on.” In her commentary about the movie, Holly Hunter states that the film is about how you realize that you don’t really know anyone. Well, that might be true–but only if your intellect is as dull as her character’s is.
For all its artistry, its frenetic camera work, its remarkable pacing, its depiction of a descent into a living hell of self-imposed moral squalor, there is little here that makes us sympathize deeply with these characters. One can see the various stages in Tracy’s devolution coming well in advance. There are momentary shocks–at the latest self-inflicted horror–but no real surprises. Even where the film is strong, it cannot come close to competing with movies like Requiem for a Dream, an even more horrifying descent into a nihilistic abyss.
The Secret Lives of Dentists also focuses on the invasion of destructive forces into a family, but the culprit here is clearly identified as a failure of spousal love and fidelity. David Hurst (Campbell Scott) and Dana (Hope David) are married dentists with children. After seeing his wife embracing another man, David suspects she is having an affair. Much of the film focuses on the interior life (or lack thereof) of David, whose dark side emerges in personified form. Dennis Leary has an easy job in this part; he simply plays himself in all his obnoxious and humorous glory, as he spurs the otherwise passive David on a path of confrontation and vengeance. Unlike Leary’s character, the film itself does not lay the blame for marital collapse solely at the feet of the mother; the film makes clear that infidelity does not occur rapidly. This is a marriage that has gone hollow from neglect, just in the way teeth begin to rot unnoticeably through lack of proper care and reveal their damage only when it is nearly too late.
The most instructive and most dramatically compelling themes in Dentists have to do with sexual fantasy and a normative order of nature. We are accustomed to the prominence given in Hollywood films to sexual fantasies, especially those of middle-aged men such as Lester Burnham in American Beauty. In this case, the fantasies of the male character are not provoked by his desire for a lithe young beauty, but by suspicion of his wife’s infidelity. He is haunted by a series of increasingly perverse images of his wife in sexual congress with a variety of persons. The subtext of violence, both in the husband’s thoughts of vengeance and in the youngest daughter’s outbursts of slapping, evinces an intimate connection between infidelity and violence.
Indeed, the film points repeatedly to the existence of a normative natural order that, once violated, will inevitably find a way to reassert itself. At a certain point in the film, one of the children expresses disgust at spoiled food in the fridge. The father calmly explains that this is just nature’s way of taking care of things. Then, in the film’s final, culminating scenes, the family is gripped with a particularly virulent bout of influenza, a virus that is clearly intended as a physical manifestation of the moral sickness afflicting the entire family. The abating of the illness leaves us with multiple, unresolved ambiguities. Has the evil been purged? Will the parents reconcile? Can they move forward? Or are there grounds for pessimism that would illustrate the limitations to the analogy between physical sickness and moral evil? Can human evil, that is, moral evil, be purged in the way an illness can? Or does it require something other and more costly than the application of appropriate medicine? Something akin to conversion?
It is a measure of the depth and sobriety of the moral vision informing The Secret Lives of Dentists that it raises such probing questions. By comparison, Thirteen is nothing more than incoherent Hollywood rubbish.
–Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author ofShows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.