‘13: The Musical’ A Blemished Coming-of-Age

Evan, a bar mitzvah boy in suit and tallit, is standing on the bimah surrounded by his family and rabbi.
“13: The Musical” culminates in Evan Goldman’s bar mitzvah. | Courtesy of Alan Markfield/Netflix

Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah signifies the entry into Jewish adulthood, but it hardly means you’re a grown-up. 

With patchy mustaches and voices that crackle and squeak, 13-year-old boys are certainly not yet men.

For proof, see Evan Goldman, a preteen forced to relocate from his Manhattan hometown to the Indiana suburbs, caught up in his parents’ messy divorce. The move is made even harder by his looming bar mitzvah date and the existential challenge that accompanies it: throwing a banger party.

The trials and tribulations, victories and defeats of his story are told in the toe-tapping “13: The Musical,” the now-streaming Netflix film adaptation of the 2008 Broadway show of the same name.

But Evan (Eli Golden) isn’t the only pre-pubescent with problems. Upon begrudgingly moving to Walkerton, Indiana — a town with no Jews — he meets Patrice (Gabriella Uhl), a bespectacled junior climate justice warrior, and Archie (Jonathan Lengel), a dry-humored neighbor with muscular dystrophy. 

When the 8th grade school year starts for the intrepid middle schoolers, trouble follows. In a web of crushes and the crushing blows of growing up, the story’s heroes demonstrate their underdeveloped frontal lobes.

Though it has an appealing premise and snappy soundtrack, “13: The Musical” gets stuck on the details and loses the bigger picture, mirroring the myopic mindset of the tweens of which it depicts.

The plot of the film is sandwiched between two bold numbers, “13” and “A Little More Homework,” which feature not only an impressive array of talent from child actors, but a refreshingly self-aware depiction of tweendom, as the characters belt about how their lives are only just beginning, how they have so much to learn and grow from.

The musical’s bookend tracks deceive the movie’s middle, which, despite its lack of nuance, still manages to be a challenge to watch. Determined to make up for the peers he lost in his move from New York and beef up his bar mitzvah attendee list, Evan does whatever it takes to make fast friends.

Upon arriving at his new school, he almost immediately ditches Patrice and Archie for the lanky and charming Brett (JD McCrary) who finds himself in a love triangle between best friends Kendra (Lindsey Blackwell) and Lucy (Frankie McNellis). 

Evan walks down the street on his Indiana town, the students at his school behind him in a triangle formation.
“13: The Musical” premiered on Netflix on Aug. 12 and is now streaming. | Courtesy of Alan Markfield/Netflix

Evan hatches a plan for Brett and Kendra to attend an R-rated film “The Bloodmaster” together, which would, according to his still-developing brain, set a romantic ambiance and provide an opportunity for the two to share their first kiss. But Lucy, holding her social capital above Evan’s head, threatens to make sure no one attends his bar mitzvah if Brett and Kendra kiss.

As Evan foils his own plan and sides with Lucy, he further isolates himself from his classmates, most of all Patrice and Archie. Brett and Lucy grow closer, until Brett realizes that Lucy’s clinginess isn’t what he wanted at all; he decides he wants Kendra back.

Despite “13”’s bright colors and deceptively sunny Indiana skies, the film is undoubtedly self-serious, which seems out-of-place given the surface-level struggles of the characters. The opening number of the film promises growth beyond growth spurt, but “13” instead delivers an anticlimactic, overly tidy resolution to its conflicts.

While the film adaptation presented an opportunity to update the pop culture references outdated from 2008, filmmakers Robert Horn and Jason Robert Brown instead make vague references to YouTube and selfies. The result is a depiction of preteen characters that further strays from the complex reality.

As the situation resolves itself over the course of multiple songs and dances, the culmination of the film in Evan’s bar mitzvah falls flat. After an all-too-short Haftorah (which would make any Jewish tween jealous of its brevity), Evan delivers a d’var Torah about everything he’s learned from the past few months (with no mention of his Torah portion!) to a crowd of whooping and cheering classmates.

He makes the requisite comment to his young, hip rabbi (Josh Peck) about a bar mitzvah not being about a party after all, but goes on to host a big bash anyway, the depth of the lesson as shallow as many of the characters’ development.

Though replete with tuneful tracks requisite for a Broadway soundtrack, “13” falters in its plot, and the moral of the film gets lost in the shuffle, bop and boogie of it all.

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