A fascinating attempt to profile the lives of people in a small town in Oklahoma before, during and after a monumentally destructive, life-altering tornado, 13 Minutes features an excellent cast, wisely chosen for their diversity, playing people in crisis doing everything they can to survive a natural disaster. Written and directed with an overload of talent by Lindsay Gossling, it rarely falters and leaves a viewer grateful for a whirlwind of character-driven suspense and humanity instead of the usual Hollywood cliches.
13 MINUTES ★★★
Starring: Anne Heche, Peter Facinelli, Paz Vega, Thora Birch, Amy Smart, Sofia Vassilieva
It begins quietly. The calm before the storm. An occasional roll of thunder in the distant sky interrupts an otherwise early-morning reverie as the residents of Minninnewah, a rural community near Oklahoma City with a population of fewer than 16,000 people prepare to greet another day with their usual routines. A pregnant teenager who works in a beauty parlor worries because her boyfriend wants neither marriage nor an abortion. A local TV weatherman warns of inclement weather on the way while his wife, a professional forecaster, tries to engage a babysitter for their deaf child. A farm couple struggling to make ends meet place their hopes on their adored son who works as a foreman on the farm, unaware that he is gay and secretly desperate to escape. An undocumented immigrant whose fiancé wants to buy a house and plan for a future together is riddled with insecurity because his job is in jeopardy. Their stories intersect. The gay son of the destitute farmer is having an affair with a handsome Hispanic worker on his Dad’s farm who is trying to secure the immigrant friend’s job status. Panicked by the impending storm, the deaf child runs away, becomes distanced from the storm shelter, and drives the two weather forecasters to hysterics searching for their lost daughter. They all have only 13 minutes before all hell breaks loose. Are you still with me?
The film is sometimes contrived in its efforts to keep the various plot lines connected, but when I tell you it manages to hold interest while you wait for the worst tornado since Twister, you’ll just have to trust me. The film never delivers the same blistering pace of that blockbuster, but with a smaller budget and fewer computer-generated special effects, it benefits substantially from the compelling contributions of a likable cast that includes Anne Heche, Peter Facinelli, Paz Vega, Thora Birch and Amy Smart. When the storm finally hits its target, the devastation is so thorough that you don’t need a surfeit of effects — first, the hail, shattering windshields and stranded people on deserted roads with bloody arms and smashed kneecaps, followed by raging winds, leveling the whole town to rubble. I didn’t believe it when the populace survived intact, with a lot of hugging and reassurance, or that everyone was so heroic—but 13 Minutes says something relevant about how much at the mercy of nature we all are, be it a virus or a backlash of the elements. Best of all, it’s swell entertainment that does not waste your time, and an engaging way to spend two hours without wishing you had stayed in bed.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.