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The fantasy of ’13 Going on 30’ holds dark possibilities
Be careful with old candy and wishing dust, even when Mark Ruffalo's love is on the line.
The 2004 film 13 Going on 30 is charming and fun. Most of this is thanks to the lead character, played by the winsome Jennifer Garner. When the film begins, it's 1987 and her character is 13 years old. After she's humiliated, she makes a wish that she was 30 years old. Whoosh, young Jenna Rink wakes up to discover that she's 30, and that she’s become Jennifer Garner.
30-year-old Jenna is also a monster. She treated her former friend Matty horribly back in the day. Now, 30 years later, the geeky Matty looks like Mark Ruffalo. Jenna looks at him differently. She’s lost her chance for true love, she's sacrificed everything at the altar of popularity (she’s still under the sway of the leader of a clique, now played by Judy Greer) and she has to use her youthful energy to make things right.
She fails, but she gets another chance once she magically returns to being 13. Jenna Rink proceeds to live a life that lands her back at 30 (the long way round) and we end with Garner and Ruffalo getting married. In the Bad Jenna timeline, he married someone else. We never find out what happened to that person in the Good Jenna timeline. The gorgeous Garner and Ruffalo make everyone watching the movie feel horrible because no real relationship can ever measure up. Couch, Razzles, credits.
That’s the movie. It is currently streaming on Peacock, and though we’ve just given you the broad strokes of the story, there’s much more to it. It’s a cute tale of wish fulfillment in the usual Hollywood style. There’s no explanation for how the leap in time happens, or how Jenna manages to change everything once she’s sent back. Why? That’s not what the movie is about. It’s about having fun with Jennifer Garner.
Because we’re unwell, we feel the need to venture past the fun and unpack the horror. If you look behind the curtain at the simple plot devices, there is a dark power in the movie that is never explored. We are brave enough to do it. We are brave enough to ask the hard questions, because Jenna Rink certainly doesn't. Why spit in the Razzles? Because they're there.
The first question is whether Jenna’s journey to 30 is real or imaginary. Did Jenna actually travel in time and see the awful person that she would become, or was it just a glitter-induced fever dream? Is this a situation akin to A Christmas Carol, where she is shown only what could be... or does she actually travel in time?
It is easier to imagine that Jenna’s time travel/body displacement is imaginary, but as Spock once said, “life is not a dream.” 13 Going on 30 is a much more frightening movie if Jenna’s time trip actually happens. She travels forward thanks to a wish, and the only good part of her adult life is that she works for Andy Serkis.
If we accept the reality that this is not just Jenna’s dream, then we arrive at the second big question. How does it happen? Young Matty sprinkles a packet of magic wishing dust on top of a shoddy model house (sorry Matty, it sucks) that he makes for Young Jenna. That dust forms the basis of Jenna’s wish… and look what happens! Where did Young Matty get that dust? We don’t find out. Young Matty does not understand the gravity of the powers that he was messing with.
We ask again: where’d he get the dust? Who gave it to him? Is there a more elaborate plot afoot? The movie ends with a happy couple, but that’s not necessarily where the story ends. After living in her awful future, Jenna has the chance to relive her life and make better choices. The movie leads us to think that the only changes that occur are that she ends up with Ruffalo-Matty, and that Greer is out of the picture. Surely those aren’t the only things that changed. Larger consequences form the basis for the bottomless bucket of questions that come next.
The butterfly effect is never considered. Jenna is thinking with her heart, not her head. We’d all like to end up with Mark Ruffalo, taking cute selfies immediately after our wedding to him concludes, but what if Jenna’s “selfish life” included her half-a**ing a job for Andy Serkis, all in favor of clubbing with Greer or something? “Good Jenna” would do that job, it could have a domino effect that Good Jenna is entirely ignorant of. The history of Serkis’ company could change as a result.
Garner and Ruffalo end up together, but in the big picture? The good actions of “Good Jenna” could have inadvertently given power to whatever it is that Serkis’ company does. Play that tape forward, and you end up with World War III. Small actions, big consequences. Jenna and Matty are messing with powers that transcend the laws of romantic comedy. Matty being in possession of that dust may not be random at all, he could have been selected as a vessel. The wicked fates looked down and they needed to make a change. They wouldn’t get into intergalactic armageddon with Bad Jenna, so they required the path of Good Jenna. How do they achieve Good Jenna? Matty, the dust, and a wish.
A storm cloud of locusts may descend on Jenna and Matty immediately after the camera leaves them happily eating their Razzles on an outdoor couch. As long as they’re happy...? How do we know that altering her own life (with disastrous ripple effects) doesn’t trigger some kind of a The Last of Us scenario? Is Serkis playing a villain? Does the resurgence of Razzles candy, which happens thanks to Jenna and Matty, cause widespread infection? Has anyone thought about why the Razzles candy faded into obscurity in the first place? They could have been destined for the trash bin of food history, right next to "Circus Fun" cereal. Thanks to Jenna and Matty, they live once more.
The movie doesn’t go into any of this, because these are the questions that you will find scribbled on the walls of an asylum. So be it, that doesn’t mean that the questions are worthless. See 13 Going on 30 as a fun romantic comedy if you want to. We’re going to see it as a wake-up call. A warning. A testament to the fact that you'd better be careful if history puts wishing dust and old candy in your path. Isn’t it fun to teach everyone the steps to the Thriller dance, haha, no one will be dancing when Jenna’s time crashing lands half of Earth’s population in the ground.
A potential sequel, 30 Going on 60, would see Jenna (Garner again, naturally) discovering all of these hard truths. No romance and no comedy in this one, oh no. Jenna Rink at 60 would be a dystopian war goddess who fights with a helicopter blade ala Emily Blunt in Live, Die, Repeat.
Maybe Jenna and Matty will act responsibly this time around, although we doubt it.
13 Going on 30 is streaming on Peacock right now. Be careful.