These days, you’d be forgiven for thinking Jennifer Garner wasn’t an actress anymore. It’s not that she doesn’t work — she’s appeared in eight movies over the past three years - but her media presence has largely been limited to that of the now-ex Mrs. Affleck and all that entails. There’s Garner with her former husband and the kids on a sturdy family outing, ready for the positive headlines. Here’s Garner doing interviews where she spouts glowing proclamations about dear old Ben without entirely letting him off the hook. That’s Garner being interviewed on a panel by Vanity Fair over the organic baby food company she has a stake in (yes, really). All in all, Garner’s carefully manicured image as the good gal with wholesome roots and a family first approach to life has been so successful in its domination of the narrative, nobody would blame you for forgetting that she was once the ultimate badass.
Between Alias and Daredevil, Garner quickly became the butt-kicker du jour, and a sex symbol for the new millennium. She wore the sexy outfits, did the sultry photo-shoots and made every fight look like a calendar pose. The early 2000s were the perfect example of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ when it came to women in action: You could be the heroine but you probably had to do so with your midriff on display. As noted by Anne Helen Petersen from Buzzfeed, Garner worked hard to reassure audiences that this wasn’t the ‘real’ her, because ‘all the Garner girls are… a good-girl family.’
Hollywood, and indeed our entire damn society, struggles with the notion of women containing multitudes. You can be sexy, but that means people won’t think you’re ‘good’, and vice versa. Angelina Jolie never got to be the girl next door, for example. Any actress wishing to pull off both would probably be categorized as having undergone some kind of career reinvention. It seemed impossible for some agents and producers to imagine a woman who’s good enough at her job to pull off both. Jennifer Garner managed it, but even then, her career would later come to be more defined by the sweetness than the sexiness. That journey started with 13 Going On 30.
The trope of the bewildered adolescent who wakes up in the body of their older self is a surprisingly common one in Hollywood. Big is the obvious gold standard, but many others have followed in its place, or taken the slightly different Freaky Friday route with a parental body swap. Doing this sort of story opens up a lot of storytelling quandaries, particularly regarding sex. How do you make a teenager a grown-up overnight and deal with that issue, keeping it family-friendly without ignoring the obvious elephant in the room? Make this a story about a woman and you’re forced to confront a whole lot of discomfiting realities about how we sexualize girls. Pulling off that impossible role is a true actor’s challenge: Be a kid but not infantile; exude innocence but not stupidity; make the audience love you but make sure they don’t end up hating you.
Garner is sort of perfect in 13 Going On 30. As the gawky teen outcast who wakes up to discover she’s grown into the woman of her wildest dreams, Garner has the doe-eyed sweetness of a Disney Princess at times, but with much sharper comic timing. She walks like a girl who’s never inhabited this kind of body before and struggles to retain any kind of poise in the process. Garner made her name with her physicality as an actress, albeit in a much more adult context, but the principle is the same here. Everything in her performance as Jenna is rooted in how she moves. This is a girl getting a crash course not just in womanhood but in ice-cold femininity as dictated by the fashion world she inhabits, and Garner makes it seem not so much effortless as impeccably executed hard work.
As the newly adult Jenna, Garner plays a woman who has no idea that she’s not supposed to be happy about everything. It’s terribly gauche to be giddy or guileful or earnest. Actions without irony should be scorned. The benefit of innocence is that it exposes the sheer pointlessness of endless cynicism, something that Jenna experiences as she goes about what is supposed to be her day-to-day life. When she walks into the offices of Poise Magazine, her dream job, she practically bounces down the corridors. Her frenemy - played by Judy Greer, because the powers that be decreed it - offers the counterpoint to her seemingly newfound attitude: One smiles, the other rolls their eyes; one gets dizzy with new ideas, the other schemes to steal them. The more we see the kind of callous woman Jenna turned into - borderline amoral, smugly calculating, the kind of woman so easy to call a ‘bitch’ - the more it stings when contrasted with the ceaseless enthusiasm she exhibits now.
A lot of the sweetness in 13 Going On 30 is found in the friendship and lost affections between Jenna and her childhood best friend Matty. As an adult, the pair have lost touch, and Jenna’s eagerness to find out why is mostly steamrolled over by the simple joy of being paired up with Matty again. Mark Ruffalo is a sinfully underrated rom-com leading man, and as Matty, he’s the perfectly sweet counterpart to Garner’s wide eyes and ear-to-ear grin. Seeing the ideal romantic pairing on-screen that has absolutely nothing to do with sex is a fascinating thing. Truly, there’s no heat at all between them, because doing so would ruin the entire point of Jenna and Matty’s arc. Their feelings cannot flourish until she understands the fantasy of adulthood won’t fix everything. Ruffalo, for his part, is probably as close as we get to a boy next door in 2000s rom-com land. He holds back but not even he, who’s been badly burned by his past with Jenna, can’t resist the overwhelming tidal-wave of her amplified adolescent charm when she wants to dance to Thriller.
The end of the film toes the line into tooth-rotting sentimentality, as Jenna tries to fix everything that’s gone wrong but realizes that too much has happened in those interim 17 years for her to deal with. Garner cries like a teenage girl, red-faced and desperate to not crumble to her feet as she pours her heart out. Cheesy as it all is, Garner makes it work. Watching Jenna’s pain is like watching someone try to crush a baby bird that’s fallen out of the nest. Even as we know all the horrible things adult Jenna did before we were introduced to her, our sympathy is still with the little girl who didn’t know any better.
Nowadays, Garner seems content to do small movies or happy spouse/mother parts. The age of the rom-com sadly seems to be over, leaving a lot of great actors without the vehicles they deserve (yes I know Ruffalo is an excellent serious actor but admit it, you’d rather see him dancing to Thriller and being the non-threatening teen girl crush). She does seem to be returning to the action fold with a drama called Peppermint, and a role in a new HBO series based on the bitch-black comedy of Julia Davis could give her a chance to stretch those funny muscles in a new, unique way. As it is, I wish we had more of the Garner we see in 13 Going On 30. There’s something to be said for unbridled earnestness, with the hair accessories to match.