Movies about middle-school kids aren’t necessarily made for middle-school kids. The characters in 13: The Musical reflect this; one of the movie’s plot points involves its barely-teenage leads conspiring to sneak into a gory horror movie called The Bloodmaster. Even if it seems unlikely that today’s 13-year-olds would bother with a theatrical engagement when there are infinite horrors to behold on the internet, it’s telling that no one suggests staying home to watch a wholesome Netflix musical based on the wacky travails of puberty. Any teenager worth their acne cream would clock 13: The Musical as more appropriate for Tweens: The Audience.
On Broadway, where Robert Horn, Dan Elish and Jason Robert Brown’s musical originated, this was part of the show’s charm. In an environment where the relatively small number of productions are split between Disney, classic revivals and the occasional Hamilton-like phenom, 13 was a refreshingly small-scale operation—something that seemed made for young musical-theater fans who might not necessarily see themselves in The Phantom of the Opera. It was a little corny, sure, but so are most “adult” musicals that charge $200 a ticket.
13 was not a hit in its day, but seemed destined to live on as a school-production staple, and now has claimed its true Broadway lineage by being turned into a movie that doesn’t really work. Theoretically, the story of Evan (Eli Golden), a New York kid whose parents’ divorce transplants him to small-town Indiana just months before his planned bar mitzvah bash, should be a comfortable fit on smaller screens. But efforts to make it pop as a movie—cranked-up digital coloring, wall-to-wall theater-kid performances, low-budget music-video slickness—give the movie an unfortunate youth-pastor (or, if you will, cool-rabbi) energy. Director Tamra Davis, whose enviable resume includes tons of great music videos, Billy Madison and episodes of countless TV shows including You’re the Worst, goes into anonymous-professional mode, and only a handful of even faintly memorable musical numbers result.
One is the Grease-ish “I’ve Been Waiting,” a song newly written for the film version; the best is the marching-band/cheer-practice extravaganza “Opportunity.” Neither of these particularly involves Evan. “Waiting” chronicles the summertime text flirtation between popular Brett (JD McCrary) and beloved good girl Kendra (Lindsey Blackwell), while “Opportunity” hands the mic to Kenda’s supposed best friend Lucy (Frankie McNellis) to detail her intention to steal Brett away. Evan, meanwhile, just wants all of these kids to come to his bar mitzvah, even if it means forsaking sweetly nerdy Patrice (Gabriella Uhl), the first friend he makes in Indiana. He takes it upon himself to help Brett score a chaste first kiss with Kendra, and manipulates others to make it happen.
The elaborate deal-making and shenanigans involved in getting a couple of 13-year-olds to barely make out has a mischievous energy, which flags as soon as the plan nonsensically falls apart around the movie’s midpoint. Though there have been tweaks made to this adaptation, sometimes incorporating material from a 2009 novelization, there are certain areas where the filmmakers seem content to make cosmetic changes rather than take the opportunity to rethink the text of a 2008 musical that it is itself now well into puberty. For example: It’s a little tricky to sell Evan’s difficulty adjusting to the Midwest when this depiction of a small-town Indiana public school boasts diversity on par with, possibly even exceeding, that of Evan’s native NYC.
There are good reasons for this; it’s more enjoyable to watch a diverse cross-section of different kids sing and dance, rather than two-dozen white kids, and why shouldn’t tweens across the country more easily see themselves in these characters? But because the movie retains Evan’s Jewishness as a reason for his outsider status—his family explicitly states that there literally aren’t any other Jews in this town, which does not have a single synagogue—it weirdly turns being Jewish into the only discernible minority in Indiana, reducing culture shock to pining for bagels in cheap Broadway-ready laugh lines aimed squarely at the Upper West Side from which Evan and his family hails. At the same time, Evan’s mom (Debra Messing) seems oddly cruel for not holding out in the city long enough for him to have the bar mitzvah he was planning with his lifelong friends.
Look, a musical that more accurately reflects the middle-school experience would be unpalatable: An atonal mélange of sweat-dampened costumes, scuffle fights, songs rife with mispronounced slurs, dance numbers performed entirely within Fortnite and the scent of Doritos permeating the whole enterprise. But apart from some stray moments of youthful exuberance, the film version of 13 has been scrubbed as clean as any high school musical, so that it resembles any number of sitcomy streaming programming—erasing the very novelty that made it sing on stage. It’s enough to make anyone over the age of 10 pine for a bully to come in and shake things up.
Director: Tamra Davis
Writer: Robert Horn
Starring: Eli Golden, Debra Messing, Rhea Perlman, Gabriella Uhl, JD McCrary, Frankie McNellis, Lindsey Blackwell
Release Date: August 12, 2022 (Netflix)
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.