Lucky Thirteen

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hirteen’s an awful, icky age — that is, unless you’re a wizard, to whom even the worst omen that’s ever beset a cup of tea leaves becomes just another sort of charm. J.K. Rowling’s third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, took the story of Harry’s painful thirteenth year and transmogrified it into the best book of the series, a tone-perfect evocation of a half-real age. And now director Alfonso Cuarón — the stylish, visceral director of


Y Tu Mamá También — has taken that ugly year and conjured the franchise’s best movie too: a darker, looser dreamscape that transpires more in shadows and dank forests than in the open air of the Quidditch pitch.
    The sly and hilarious opening scene will be parodied at the MTV Movie Awards: Under the sheets late at night, Harry plays furiously with his wand, breathing hard, flush-faced, until the wand flickers, and then pulses with light. By the time his Muggle caretaker bangs open the door, Harry, pretending to be sleep, has a wide smile on his face. (I imagine Jimmy Fallon hunched over on a kid’s bed, fiddling between his legs, then pulling back the covers to reveal cartoonish tufts of hair magically sprouting from his palms.) By the next scene, Harry has exploded with Carrie-like anger, shattering a glass from across the room with nothing but his rage.
    Harry, angry and upset, runs away from home and finds his way to a very different Hogwarts. Chris Columbus, the director of Jumanji and the first two Potter films, was content to create Happy Meal landscapes fit for a theme park — a spic-and-span fantasyland, full of bright diversions. But Cuarón’s Hogwarts looks weathered and dirty — more old Times Square than new — institutional, blocky and huge, and somehow less important than the woods around and the

Harry can’t control his fears, or his fate, or his magic.

  tunnels below.
    Nothing ever quite happens when it should: terrifying wraiths called Dementors randomly attack Harry for no clear reason; he faints uncontrollably; his broom breaks. Harry can’t control his fears, or his fate, or his magic.
    And true to the black magic of the thirteenth year, biology begins to make girls look like women and boys like chemistry experiments. Harry has lost all his baby fat. While Weasley has been banished to that dorky era between cute and teen — as a result, he’s not given a single act of importance; he’s a hanger-on. Whereas Hermione (played by Emma Watson, the best actress of the bunch) has blossomed into a brilliant young woman with a battery of secret talents and a self-confidence that impresses male teachers. (Is Dumbledore almost flirting with her?)
    I can’t speak for women, but for boys, I remember thirteen being a horrible year. I turned thirteen a few days before the first day of eighth grade, when I showed up wearing bright pink Jams, bright red zits, and an Ocean Pacific T-shirt — somehow thinking that dressing like a surfer in my landlocked North Carolina hometown was a good idea. My former friend Suzy, who had grown breasts over the summer, mocked me before I made it into the classroom. It was also the year I had my first real fight and the first time I asked a girl to a school dance (that I didn’t want to go to) and she said no (because she was waiting on a call from a kid who wore skateboard logos, not surfboard logos). A horrible year. But, come to think of it, not bad material.
    Thirteen has always been a lucky number in films. My favorite film about thirteen year olds, Something Wicked This Way Comes (perhaps referenced by Cuarón), follows two kids who fight evil, like Harry, to retrieve their father — and who win out in the end, like Harry, by facing down fear with a smile. 13 Going on 30 played the age for laughs; Thirteen rubbed our faces in so-called authenticity by displaying piercings and house parties. And somehow this odd tale of Hippogriffs and Dementors seems more real than them all.
    In Hollywood, thirteen is also the age at which Hollywood takes the training wheels off and real movie-going begins — with the PG-13 rating. And the miracle of Cuarón’s film is that, through some strange magic, it converts a kiddie franchise into a great teen flick; a scary movie that you watch in the dark, maybe even while holding hands, a movie that may fall apart at the end but never panders. It’s a transformational act more impressive than the film’s writhing werewolf: The struggling Olsen twins should take note.

  Logan Hill is a contributing writer at New York magazine. He has
contributed to Wired, The Nation, The New York Post, The New York Press and The Village Voice.