13: The Musical is a Netflix Original movie based on the hit Broadway show of the same name by Jason Robert Brown, Dan Elish, and Robert Horn. The movie is directed by Tamra Davis and featuring a cast of 13-year-olds as Evan Goldman (Eli Golden) is whisked away from his life in New York City after his parents’ divorce (played by Debra Messing and Peter Hermann) to live in a small town in Indiana months before his Bar Mitzvah.
The original musical was a huge deal, even if you’ve never heard of it. It is the only Broadway show to have a cast and band made up entirely of teenagers, it launched the careers of Ariana Grande and Elizabeth Gilles, and it had a niche but dedicated following, especially among middle schoolers who saw themselves in its simple story.
But if you find a recording of the musical now, it’s a tad cringeworthy, and not just because its pubescent teens have crackly voices and the outfits are 2000s atrocious. The plot is just a bit tough to swallow: Evan arrives in the new town, makes a new friend, ditches her for a new group of cooler kids when school starts so his Bar Mitzvah party can be full of cool kids, hatches a plot to help two popular kids arrange their first kiss, agrees to help third popular kids spoil it because she’s jealous, and takes advantage of the school’s one disabled kid in the process. While somewhat reasonable on paper and largely true to the spirit of middle school antics and priorities, it’s not exactly a story to write home about in 2022.
As such, the Netlfix rendition has the job not only of being a decent movie starring mostly middle schoolers (it does include a number of adult roles, unlike the Broadway production), it also has the job of not feeling like a story stuck in 2009. On both fronts 13: The Musical does a fair enough job. In fact, in its own right, the movie is campy, the dancing is decent, the kids’ voice cracks and flat high notes feels more endearing than annoying, and the additional songs and updated lyrics are very basic Broadway in style but for the most part, pretty well crafted. A couple of lines had me cringing here and there, but many more left me rather impressed.
Golden as Evan in particular plays the role really well. It’s easy for that role to wind up smarmy and annoying given how it sounds on paper, but I give this kid a full seal of menschkeit. He’s genuinely just a good kid doing his best in a pretty crummy situation. He’s welcoming to everybody, always has the best intention, and takes responsibility for things that go wrong, even when they’re not his fault. Most of the rest of the cast is really pretty charming too. The potential couple at hand, Brett (JD McCrary) and Kendra (Lindsey Blackwell), as well as their groups of friends all seem genuinely like good kids too. Again, it’s easy to play popular as stand-offish or obnoxious and really they just all are sweet and kind. Lucy (Frankie McNellis), the jealous friend of Kendra’s who’s pining after Brett too, is played as totally sympathetic even as she stirs up the plot. The only crying shame is that this movie features the incredibly funny and amazing singer Luke Islam in far too small of a role. Let that star shine!
But this brings us to our final two teenage characters: Archie (Jonathan Lengel) and Patrice (Gabriella Uhl). Archie is the aforementioned disabled friend of Patrice, in this iteration, who finds himself in the middle of Lucy’s plot to make Evan stop Brett and Kenra from kissing. It’s also where my challenges with 13: The Musical not going far enough to update itself begin. Archie and Evan seem to me like they’re perfectly friendly and like Archie’s involvement in this plot is entirely based on his own pushing himself into the situation and encouraging Evan along in it.
The fact that he’s disabled (and played by a disabled actor to boot) is just a matter of fact, not a part of anybody’s scheme or the way he’s treated by others. He’s treated poorly by the others because he’s just a weird kid with few social skills. Could we dissect that further? Yes, of course. But Patrice is just as weird so, I’m not willing to pin his weirdness on his disability alone. It’s genuinely well constructed, at least in my non-disabled perspective. Until out of nowhere Patrice basically calls Evan an ableist for taking advantage of Archie in that plot when he seemed very not taken advantage of in this version of the story. But by calling this out and never even attempting to refute it, in fact, Evan goes along with this accusation, it’s putting a completely undue filter over the whole circumstance that implies that audiences are supposed to see the situation for something I frankly do not believe is going on. It feels offensive to be patronizing Archie this way when clearly he’s autonomous here and made all his own choices amicably with Evan.
But this is kind of Patrice’s whole deal in this version of 13: The Musical. Even though there’s a whole length of the movie that shows the birth of Evan and Patrice’s friendship, the second she feels threatened by his interest in additional friends, she ditches him and blames it on him. Look, I’ve taught enough middle school boys to understand the unconventionality of what I’m about to say but: Evan is totally innocent here. He makes it very clear that he wants to be Patrice’s friend just as well as Kendra and Brett and the rest. It’s her who says you can only pick me or them. Can you blame a kid for taking that ultimatum and ignoring it?
I know it’s surely hurtful to her seeing her friend hanging out with people who are mean to her, but given that the popular kids are so clearly nice kids, it’s pretty clear that they are a big part of why they don’t like her because she chooses to be just as hostile towards them. She’s full of assumptions about them, refuses to blunt the edges she’s only put up to guard against them specifically in the first place, and makes it just seem like she’s hated their guts simply for existing from the day she’s met them. It’s hard to sympathize with a character who takes an active role in making herself disliked by everyone else. Her shenanigans later on only further the point that she’s not nice, Evan doesn’t deserve the way she treats him, and Evan is too nice for taking the blame for her cruelty.
I’m fixated on this frustrating portrayal because this isn’t a real 13-year-old making mistake. That would be entirely reasonable and I’d have all the empathy in the world. This is a movie written by adults setting her up to be the character with the biggest misgivings which Evan needs to apologize to for hurting when, as I’ve hopefully explained, she simply doesn’t deserve. I’m not saying that the entire plot of the movie needed to change to fit the way that the characters have been updated to not be total jerks. But leaving things this way just puts undue blame on Evan. Even though he takes it well because again, he’s a really great kid, it’s not fair to be telling this movie’s middle school audience that if you choose to make new friends who treat you well and are nice over somebody who is being unfair to you and unfair to everyone else that you’re the one doing something wrong. Middle school is hard enough. It doesn’t need this bizarre and unfair level of head games on top of it.
Two final complaints to lodge. First, if this fictional middle-of-nowhere small town is diverse enough to have as many non-white students as it does white ones and is welcoming enough to let its only Jewish kid have his Bar Mitzvah ceremony and party in one of its churches, surely the town is progressive enough to have at least one queer kid. The random queer-coded kid that suddenly appears with a weird hairdo and clothes midway through doesn’t cut it. There’s no middle school in America that doesn’t have queer kids in it. There is simply no excuse for updating 13: The Musical in the ways the show has been and not including visibly queer kids in it.
Secondly is the Jewishness of it all. I’d let Josh Peck play a rabbi again any time. He plays the cool young rabbi in a mostly not cringe-worthy way. Sure, it’s a little bit contrived and the jokes a bit trite (same very much goes for Grandma Ruth (Rhea Perlman). But his Hebrew pronunciation is impeccable, his rabbinic wisdom is on point, and his rabbinic exaggeration is welcome. I just hate when a movie has a kid explain something about Judaism in the way a kid would explain it in real life and nobody ever corrects him. A Bar Mitzvah is not the most important thing in a Jewish person’s life and neither is it a huge party.
Are these true from Evan’s perspective? Of course. Are these perspectives integral parts of the Jewish American experience? Very much so. But they’re not all that a Bar Mitzvah is about and when neither Evan, nor his family, nor his rabbi ever stop to correct this, it leaves the audience, especially non-Jewish audiences, to assume this is true and nothing more. If you’re Jewish, maybe you can read into the themes here of entering Jewish adulthood, fulfilling Jewish commandments, and so forth. But without being any amount explicit about this, it’s all lost. You can’t just Josh Peck charm your way into good Jewish representation. It feels like a prop instead of an actual identity.
So, 13: The Musical is quite the mixed bag. It’s not bad at all. It has some quite charming elements, the music is pretty fun, and many of the characters and plot feel like they’re tweaked just slightly enough to befit modernity. But the elements that weren’t are pretty frustrating and ruin a lot of parts of the movie for me. A movie that could have been pretty decent was sullied by going for the easy way out at most of the most important turns.
13: The Musical is streaming now on Netflix.
13: The Musical
13: The Musical is quite the mixed bag. It’s not bad at all. It has some quite charming elements, the music is pretty fun, and many of the characters and plot feel like they’re tweaked just slightly enough to befit modernity. But the elements that weren’t are pretty frustrating and ruin a lot of parts of the movie for me. A movie that could have been pretty decent was sullied by going for the easy way out at most of the most important turns.