"The Fear of 13" is an English documentary about a petty criminal named Nick Yarris, who grew up in the 1970's in the township of Chichester Pennsylvania. Chichester is a working class suburban community near the banks of the meandering Delaware River just north of the Pennsylvania/Delaware border. And as you come to find out over the course of the film, Yarris was a lost soul who floundered in school and harbored a dark secret from his childhood.
Man, do I have a tale to tell...
Like many teens of his generation, Nick clashed with his parents, drifting carelessly into drug use, delinquency and eventually developed a modus operandi as a car thief, before descending into full blown Crystal Meth addiction and the predictable cycle of crime and punishment that often accompanies it.
The simple power and ease with which the film tells what is ultimately a riveting and at times unbelievable story makes this a documentary of rare emotional power. Director Sington, who worked on the Nova series for many years, structures the film as a series of anecdotes related by Yarris himself, often looking straight into the camera in a style reminiscent of the one Errol Morris uses in "The Fog of War".
It feels like we are sitting across the table of a prison visiting room, from an inmate recounting the events of his life and crimes in monologue form, with what I can only describe as wholly unexpected poetical virtuosity only matched by professional performers and monologists like Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian.
The stories are structured and ordered cleverly to build up what is a suspenseful life and death struggle with the legal machinations of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but "The Fear of 13" like its title, is also willingly side tracked into philosophical diversion, as Harris ruminates on his own voyage of self discovery and desperate search for meaning and personal identity in a world full of cruelty and madness.
Without prevarication or excuse, Yarris details how little thought went into actions and reactions that at the time seemed like the minor miscalculations and poor judgement of a teenager.
Given the perspective of age and self realization, he at times seems barely capable of maintaining his composure at the memory of how much he would ultimately lose. But these moments of melancholy and sadness punctuate the film but don't overwhelm it. Oftentimes, we can't help but join the narrator in amazement at the absurd almost comical way he would be treated and abused by fate in the form of the law enforcement and the judicial system in the hayday of the Reagan era war on drugs.
By way of example, and without giving too much of the story away, Yarris tells how he accidentally and through a series of misunderstandings, escapes from prison on a frigid winter day, narrowly evading being shot while handcuffed during a trigger- happy police pursuit, only to be set upon by a spotlight equipped helicopter.
Throughout the film there are sequences like this, expertly rendered by Sington and Yarris, that seem too incredible to have been true, with dramatic surprises and reversals, and just the right amount of detail, bluster and mea culpa. Before long, Yarris emerges unexpectedly as the self effacing heroic underdog of his own life story.
Sington decorates the tale with subtle interweaving of sonic and visual montage, which elevates the film and provides respite from what might otherwise have been a monotonous talking head tv news magazine episode.
"The Fear of 13" is an unexpected and under appreciated documentary that reminds what simple human conversation and storytelling are capable of. Like a good novel, the film stirs the heart, mind and imagination in ways that the biggest blockbusters are incapable of.