My husband is away for the weekend, visiting a friend in Sacramento. So I’ve got the house and the dogs to myself. To make this a lemonade and not a lemon experience, I decided to use my temporary freedom from “He Who Must Be Obeyed” (“eat your greens” tyranny, not “fall down and worship me” tyranny) to stay up all night. I started watching the new Netflix streaming series 13 Reasons Why at about 10 p.m. and watched the whole thing in one sitting. When I got up out of the chair it was 10 a.m.
This fact will only sound absurder and absurder when I tell you that what captured such devoted attention is a tale of teenage angst, a story by and about sixteen and seventeen year olds whose daily lives unfold in a high school in California. Boys, being boys, obsess about getting a kiss or copping a feel, then betray the girls involved by boasting of their conquests to get standing among their male peers. The girls get slut-shamed and struggle to regain their reputations. You know, high school. Thanks to the plethora of streaming opportunities, I don’t hesitate to shut something down after four or five episodes if it isn’t working for me. Not that I don’t like kids. It’s just that I’m more at home with people with stiff joints and the need for a daily afternoon nap than with folks fighting with their parents over piercing.
But I’m being misleading. 13 Reasons Why is about much bigger issues than teenage angst, even though in a world of bullying and sexual aggression the challenge of surviving your teenage years psychologically intact is not trivial. I’ll get to this in a minute.
As a film, 13 Reasons Why, only just released (March 31), is chock full of weaknesses. I cannot speak to the original book by Jay Asher it is based on. The twelve-part series is too long, and the end is dragged out unmercifully. The plot line taxes credulity. And frankly, I have a short fuse for watching dysfunctional people bumble their way through life hour after hour and then fail. I’d much rather watch smart people figure things out, bad guys get their just desserts, unexpected twists of plot, and heavy layers of irony and sarcasm. What we get here are high school sophomores, some with tattoos, f-bombing their parents and teachers, partying unsupervised with lots of alcohol and drugs, and behaving generally in a way that convinces me I’m even more out of touch with youth culture than I thought. Either that, or they are seriously overdoing the precociousness. That they could make a movie with such characters and make you nonetheless actually root for these kids deserves serious respect, I think. The good writing and good directing go a long way. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 95% rating by critics, and an 88% audience rating.
13 Reasons Why begins with the suicide of the main character, Hannah, whom we actually get to know pretty well because much of the movie plays out in flashbacks. Hannah leaves behind seven cassette tapes, each but the last with two sides of explanation for why she slit her wrists in the bathtub. Each side is devoted to a different character whom she addresses directly. She leaves the tapes in a shoebox with instructions for each of the twelve people involved to listen to the whole thing and then pass the tapes on to the next person. The conclusion we are supposed to come to is that each of her high school friends included in this number, plus her high school counselor, had it in their power to prevent her suicide, if only they had paid closer attention to the signals she was sending out. And that is the first larger intellectual and moral question the film raises: to what degree am I my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper. Granted a yes answer is easier to justify when that brother or sister is still a kid, but even then you have to contend with the obvious fact that in the end, if we don’t learn to swim on our own, we sink.
The characters are beautifully sketched out, and the acting is quite good. There is doubt along the way about whose version of the story is more credible, Hannah’s or those of her friends and rivals she insists have wronged her. That leaves you with enough doubt to hold back on too quick a judgment of these clearly self-centered high school sophomores and juniors. At the same time, because Hannah is telling the story from the perspective of a teenager who is desperate to the point of suicide, all recorded on the night before she takes her life, you have to decide whether she’s being brutally honest, or simply missing the big picture that people suffering from depression inevitably miss. Is she even in possession of all the facts? A tale told by a desperate person is not the same thing as a tale told by a god-like all-knowing narrator.
Hannah is not the only narrator; there are two. The story is told in Clay’s words, as well, and here, too, you wonder about the slant. At one point Hannah addresses Clay on the tapes and says to him, very directly, “Clay, honey, your name does not belong on this list.” But he has, by this time, had enough time to realize how much of her story he has missed, despite the fact that he has been obsessively fixated on her. And so his story is tinged with the regret and the guilt he feels, and you’re left wondering how much of his telling is objective.
What you come away with is a sad feeling in the pit of your stomach that if this is an accurate depiction of how parents and their children communicate with each other, there’s no wonder we seem so often to have come unhinged as a modern society.
And that’s the issue that, more than any other, kept my eyes on the tube all night. I am fascinated by the split in this country that has led us to the culture war we are engaged in and how that culture split shows up in so many places from the Trump phenomenon, to the place of religion in American life, to what constitutes truth in a postmodernist age. With the divide over Trump’s election victory, one American culture camp is aghast that the members of the opposing American culture camp would allow a lying narcissistic climate change denying proto-fascist (or actual fascist) to shut down government, remove health care from the poor and give the money saved to the rich, install members of his family to leading positions in government and use his power to maintain his business empire. The other camp calls that simply missing the point, and argues it’s high time we tossed out the corrupt system generated and maintained by a bunch of elitists and boo-hoo if you politically correct bastards got the tables turned on you. Do you see a tear in this eye?
The teenagers in 13 Reasons Why are members of that elite class. Let’s call this Culture A. They have parents who even if they are not wealthy nonetheless raise their children to be independent, grant them privacy rights, expect them to experiment with sex and drugs. They begin conversations with “When I was your age I had the same problems…” Not “What the hell were you thinking?” The other class of folk, in Culture B, where kids are more likely to grow up in a spare-the-rod, spoil-the child, “because I said so,” “so long as you live under this roof,” “no son of mine will ever…” world, is viewed by members of Culture A as retrograde, even archaic, subject to rules that crush the spirit and eventually destroy the soul.
In 13 Reasons Why the families of the two leading characters, Hannah and Clay, are both Culture A people. Loving parents who work hard at parenting. Tragically, in this case they miss entirely what is happening in their children’s emotional lives. Hannah is bullied, and for some reason believes sharing this with her mother and father is the wrong thing to do. Over time, the bullying and the alienation get worse. Her suicide baffles them entirely.
Clay is in love with Hannah, but he lacks the courage to tell her. Time after time he misses the opportunity to connect. Hannah doesn’t help in this. She tells people to go away and then faults them for not knowing she hopes they will not listen to her. He, too, is unable to share this kind of information with his parents. Kids spend their time at parties unsupervised by adults, judging themselves and each other on the basis of cool, and creating lists of ratings with categories such as “best ass.” It’s not surprising they reach hasty and often unwarranted conclusions. The impression you get from this particular view of Culture A kids is that the bubble they live in with their peers can be lethal. And yet, parents are held back from getting involved by a desire to demonstrate to their children that they trust them and share the Culture A view that a sense of responsibility is inculcated in young people only when you provide them with the opportunity to fail. With that goes granting them a strong right to privacy. That can send the wrong signal, as it does when Hannah finds one of her classmates is apparently stalking her and nonetheless decides not to burden her overworked parents with this knowledge. We see how this value too can lead to devastating consequences.
There is a quite thorough review of the book by Jay Asher the film is based on available here.
The film is rated R for language, two rape scenes and the suicide, which are preceded by warnings for parents with children.
I have no idea if the film will hold your attention if meted out in smaller doses. Probably.
If you’ve got a teenage kid in the house, I suspect it will make you want to grab them and hold them tight.
photo credit: from the IMDb website