Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I'm a sucker for stories that use sci-fi/fantasy transformations as a metaphor for puberty. Not indiscriminately, mind you. I'm not a fan of, say, Michael J. Fox’s Teen Wolf, or worse still, Jason Bateman’s Teen Wolf Too, but generally speaking the gimmick has a rewarding way of getting at the emotional and physical anxieties of adolescence in an appealing way. In the case of the Disney Channel Original Movie The Thirteenth Year, a 13-year-old boy is suddenly generating low levels of electricity, dreaming of swimming underwater without a need to come up for air, and finding his hands inexplicably sticky and developing scales when in contact with moisture. In case you didn't guess from that list of symptoms - and I'm reasonably certain WebMd couldn't help you there - he's turning into a mermaid. Sorry, merman.

Knowing he was adopted heightens his sense of being different. The kid goes to his parents (Lisa Stahl and Dave Coulier, everyone's least favorite Full House uncle) and asks to find his birth mother. They tell him that they found him on their boat and, though they turned him in to the authorities right away, no one ever claimed him so they got to keep him. Who knew that finding a baby is no different than finding, say, 20 bucks on the ground? Finder’s keepers. Maybe it's maritime law. (Ask Barry Zuckerkorn about that one.) Anyway, what none of them know is that the infant was put on the boat by a mermaid eluding capture by a mildly crazy fisherman (Brent Briscoe). In the eye-rolling opening scene, the man fires up the boat chasing the large shape on his fish-finder sonar (really) and shouts "If I didn't know better, I'd say this fish was half human!"

Most of Jenny Arata, Robert L. Baird, and Kelly Senecal’s script for The Thirteenth Year is given over to the slow discovery of the boy's mermaid (sorry, merman) powers as they grow stronger and more frequent. To the movie's credit, there's not a whole lot of struggle here aside from mildly heightened adolescent angst. It's most enjoyable aspect is how small and pokey it is as it ambles along. It's about a boy who finds out that his true identity is as a sea-creature of legend, but the biggest worries he (or anyone, really) has are that the girl who is sweet on him won't like him anymore and that he won't be able to participate in the big upcoming swim meet on account of the fins he'd grow once dunked in the water. A better movie might've found a way to more convincingly tie in magical angst with such humdrum concerns, but there's a certain amount of refreshment to find in such a quiet change of pace.

The director here is Duwayne Dunham, last seen bringing us Halloweentown, another discover-your-true-magical-identity DCOM. Again, he gets nice small performances out of the kids in the cast. From Chez Starbuck (what a name!) in the lead, who overcomes some odd line readings to build up a moderately affecting performance, to Courtnee Draper (at the time a lead in the Disney Channel sitcom The Jersey) as the girl who has a crush on him. I liked how her character knows what she wants and goes after him, sweetly but forcefully making the first move at every turn. That's a nice change of pace. The adults in the cast don't make much of an impact, but at least they aren't relentlessly mugging for the camera. Even the fisherman from the opening - revealed to be the father of one of the kid's classmates and ever more obsessed with mermaids in the intervening years - stays relatively low-key, threatening to grow into a villain before mellowing out in the movie's little burst of climactic action.

Perhaps most notable is the film's nice seaside palate, which feels slightly more expansive than the usual DCOM fare. The director of photography, I was somewhat surprised to see, was Michael Slovis, who also worked on Halloweentown. Just ten years after the making of this TV-movie he became a key behind-the-scenes player on Breaking Bad, helping make that show one of the more gorgeously cinematic - and expansive in its orientation in the middle of New Mexico's vast landscapes - TV productions I've ever seen.  But maybe you could tell by the way this review keeps veering off into asides about other bits of pop culture, that there's only so much of interest in The Thirteenth Year, which is nice enough and has a good premise, but is basically just the most middle-of-the-road presentation that premise could've gotten.

Up next: Smart House

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