13 Going on 30 and the Problem with Skipping Over the Hard Parts

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remote rewind
ELLE.com staff writer R. Eric Thomas revisits the movies that bring us the most comfort—and uncovers their deeper messages of connection and hope.

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We all know the challenges of shifting suddenly to WFH life are real and complex. But we should stop to consider that figuring out how to do your job from your living room is nothing compared to figuring out how to do your job as the 13-year-old version of yourself. Look on the bright side, everyone! We may be stacking our laptops on piles of cereal boxes to keep them eye level and casually playing off the ambient sounds of pets, kids, roommates, and…is that popcorn popping? But at least we’re not children pretending to know what we’re doing on Zoom calls. We’re adults pretending to know what we’re doing on Zoom calls and that is progress!

As I embarked on a quarantine rewatch of 13 Going on 30, a delightful “suddenly grown up” comedy that turned old enough to drive last week, the predicament in which Jennifer Garner’s Jenna finds herself seems both scarier than it originally did and also more preferable than the present. Yes, I am glad I have thirty-plus years of living experience to help me deal with reality, but—here’s a wild idea—what if I could skip over this period in reality altogether?

Since we don’t have access to Matty’s (Mark Ruffalo) magic dust—the very 1980s “back of the kids’ magazine”-style product that transports Jenna 17 years into the future—let’s deal with the primary concern of the movie: How bad would a 13-year-old version of yourself be at doing your job? The surprise of 13 Going on 30 is that Jenna’s wide-eyed youthfulness and creativity actually make her great at her job as a powerful editor at a fashion magazine (sort of like the one you’re reading right now). But forget the magical aging—this is the part that I cannot believe. A middle school version of myself wouldn’t even know how to turn on the computer I’m typing this article into, let alone figure out the content management system or what to do when the Slack notification sound plays. True, Jenna devours Magazine Publishing for Dummies, but as someone who has also panic-read that book, it does not have all the answers it promises.

jennifer garner in '13 going on 30'
Me right now, tbh.

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One of the most astounding parts of the movie to me, an adult dummy, is that to save Poise magazine, Jenna seemingly organizes multiple huge photoshoots with a phalanx of models and crew members singlehandedly and, even more impressively, figures out how to requisition a check to pay Matty, the photographer. She turns in the right forms to the right department with the right signatures on time despite having watched zero (0) online tutorials on it, a feat I have yet to accomplish.

What I’m saying is maybe reality would be easier if I was secretly a 13-year-old trying to muddle through the day in adult drag. Who wants to be an adult right now anyway? All these big emotions and quotidian tasks, with a thousand Zoom login links littering the surface of our existential dread. Jenna is terrified of the supposedly normal parts of her adult life—her hot boyfriend, her cellphone, getting into cars with strangers—but she’s fearless about charging the dance floor to perform “Thriller” or pivoting to a new direction for her magazine. One of the movie’s big ideas is that often, we find we’ve had the skills to meet the challenge of the present for much longer than we thought.

When 13-year-old Jenna surveys her life at the beginning of the movie, it’s easy to identify all the things she wants to change. And when she wakes up in an apartment straight out of an issue of Poise, with her dream job and a signed photo of Madonna on the wall, it seems that everything she envisioned came true. But can we really trust the foresight of our past selves? I’ve noticed a recent trend of people prefacing social media posts about celebratory events—birthdays, graduations, etc.—with the phrase “I never thought I’d be [insert life event] in quarantine but…” It’s an interesting caveat that acknowledges reality while also inviting the possibility that years ago some prescient middle schooler sat in a closet and wished to have a birthday party video call while stuck in their dream house. If that strangely specific child was you, congratulations, I guess. And maybe have a different wish for the next time jump.

That’s what Jenna chooses to do at the end of 13 Going on 30: Return to the 1980s, kiss Matty, and eventually, marry him. There’s no mention of Poise in the new timeline, which is a bit of a shame. We never find out what new Jenna does for work, even though she turned out to be a good magazine editor. You could argue that after growing up and learning to accept the present, adult Jenna might’ve lost what made 13-year-old Jenna so innovative in the job. But the nostalgic lesson she leaves us with as presents her redesign of Poise (which is not so much a redesign as it is a concept for a spread, at least according to the chapter in Magazine Publishing for Dummies I just read) is, perhaps, something we can all take into the future: “I think we all want to feel something that we’ve forgotten or turned our backs on, because maybe we didn’t realize how much we were leaving behind,” Jenna says, echoing me waxing wistfully about the lackluster brunch restaurant I suddenly deeply miss. She continues, “We need to remember what used to be good. If we don’t, we won’t recognize it, even if it hits us between the eyes.”

I never imagined I’d be writing this article during quarantine, but I never imagined a lot of things about the present. How could I? How could any of us? Though the situation we all find ourselves in is often terrifying and far from ideal, it’s likely there will be some tiny parts of this time that we’ll look back on with affection. The challenge that faces Jenna, and all of us, is to recognize them in the moment, before they’re gone.

R Eric Thomas is a Senior Staff Writer at ELLE.com, home of his daily humor column “Eric Reads the News,” which skewers politics, pop culture, celebrity shade, and schadenfreude.

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