13 GOING ON 30


For those who've seen the actress Jennifer Garner only on TV, in her role as the often brittle, self-assured, multi-guised double agent Sydney Bristow--well, be prepared to be blown away by the new girly and giggly and charmingly irrepressible Garner who's the central character in 13 Going on 30.

Garner plays the 30-year-old Jenna, a character we first meet in 1987, when she's just turning 13 (as played by Christa A. Allen) and is suffering from a severe case of teenage angst. At her birthday party, the cool kids shun her, and she's left once again with her neighbor and best friend, Matt (Sean Marquette), who's sweet and attentive but a real dork. Locking herself into a closet, where a bit of strategically placed magic dust happens to sprinkle onto her head, young Jenna closes her eyes and wishes--wishes hard--to be one of the 'flirty, thirty and thriving' young women she's read about in Poise, her favorite magazine.

Voila! When Jenna wakes up, we see her as Garner, a full-grown adult with the personality--and memory--of an adolescent. Garner fearlessly embodies this duality as few actresses could--she's at once beautiful but gawky, sexy but silly, smart but clueless--and she's absolutely irresistible. Most of the fun in 13 Going on 30 stems from Jenna's discovery of the adult world and her role in it. She learns, to her glee, that she's the hotshot editor of Poise, lives in a classy New York apartment and has a hunky boyfriend. Actually, the inexperienced teenager inside her is not at all pleased about the boyfriend (Samuel Ball) who, as a come-on, does a hysterical striptease while Jenna squirms and squeals and covers her eyes.

Sure, the plot here is a retread (one thinks of Big and other fantasies of kids wishing to be grownups), but if it works, who cares? 13 Going on 30 does work, thanks to its sprightly script and brisk direction and some priceless feel-good moments--as when Jenna leads a jaded New York crowd into a retro group stomp to the music of Michael Jackson's 1980s 'Thriller.' But mostly what makes this movie work is Garner and her co-stars--foremost among them Mark Ruffalo, who's the adult and decidedly un-dorky Matt. When Jenna, the supposedly savvy New Yorker--a 'Sex in the City' prototype--begins to feel like a lost little girl, it is Matt she needs. Tracking him down in Greenwich Village, she's shocked to learn they haven't been friends since that fateful 13th birthday party. In fact, Matt, a successful photographer, is engaged to be married to someone else.

A bigger shock for Jenna is finding out that, in the 'lost time' before she woke up as her real self, she had not been a nice person. She was a conniving bitch, in fact, much like her best friend and fellow editor Lucy (Judy Greer, who's also splendid). Actually, there's a strong moral lesson in this nicely framed fantasy; it has to do with the human psyche's need to hold onto and remember 'what is good.' It's also about correcting mistakes, taking responsibility, celebrating the simple things in life. The happy ending in 13 Going on 30 is an outrageous contrivance arrived at all too quickly. But it is, nevertheless, more satisfying--more spiritually rewarding, let's venture--than most.

--Shirley Sealy