The unexpected life lesson that 13 Going on 30 taught me

Released in theaters on April 23rd, 2004, rom-com 13 Going on 30 is turning 15. Here, HG contributor De Elizabeth remembers her first time watching the film and realizing that, like Jenna Rink, she’d been letting life pass her by.

I never expected to cry all my mascara off while watching 13 Going on 30, but that’s exactly what happened the first time I saw it…and literally every time since.

The now-iconic rom-com starring Jennifer Garner hit theaters on April 23rd, 2004, telling the story of Jenna Rink, a 13-year-old-girl who doesn’t quite fit in with the popular crowd at her middle school. She has a best friend named Matt, whom she takes for granted, blithely unaware of the fact that he adores her.

Instead, Jenna fantasizes about fast-forwarding her entire awkward adolescence, skipping over stuffed bras and unrequited love, in order to become “30, flirty, and thriving.” After making that very wish while tucked into a basement closet after a birthday party gone wrong, she is magically transported 17 years ahead, learning that her future self is a “big-time magazine editor” and a “tough bitch”—with a slew of new problems to manage.

The movie couldn’t have come out at a better time for me. I saw it in theaters that spring with a group of my college friends, a few months after graduating high school, moving away from home, and being on my own for the first time in my entire life. Like Jenna, I spent a lot of my childhood wishing to be older, often looking ahead to the next chapter without paying much attention to the one I was currently in. I’m sure if I had access to a magic dollhouse as a 13-year-old, I would have wished to be grown up, too.

In the 15 years that have passed since its release, I’m sure that I’ve re-watched 13 Going on 30 dozens of times. Whenever it’s on TV, I’ll find myself lingering on the channel to catch the “Thriller” dance sequence (who among us hasn’t longed to casually break out into an elaborately choreographed routine at a party?) or reciting quote-worthy lines along with the characters (“That’s because I have these incredible boobs to fill it out!”). But there is one scene that has stayed with me for over a decade, never failing to make me tear up, no matter how many times I’ve watched it.

It’s the moment when adult Jenna returns to the infamous basement closet where she first made her ill-fated wish. Now 30 years old, she takes a train to her parents’ house, setting off a montage of nostalgic images while Billy Joel’s “Vienna” plays in the background. We watch Jenna explore her childhood bedroom, seemingly taking in all of the details that reflect who she used to be, but no longer fit who she is now. The scene culminates with Jenna crying on the floor of the basement closet, with the poignant lyrics driving home the ultimate kicker: “Slow down, you’re doing fine—you can’t be everything you want to be before your time.”

It’s a lesson that Jenna, and I, learned too late.

When I first watched that scene as a college freshman, I remembered how I rushed through my final weeks of high school, barely looking back at the building on my final day, too eager to start summer vacation. I thought about all the times I couldn’t wait for what came next, rushing past seemingly unimportant seasons of teenagehood in order to reach a coveted milestone, like getting my driver’s license or starting my first job.

I realized then that there were so many pieces of my life that I’d already breezed through without paying attention, and I was never going to get them back. I suddenly found myself inexplicably sad—nostalgic for everyday moments that I didn’t think twice about when they were actually happening to me. I wiped away tears in the darkened theater, overwhelmed with the desire to be a little kid again, thinking I’d easily trade college parties for one more afternoon on the playground, if I only could.

And to be honest, I’m still working on getting all of this right. Today, in my adult life, I’m arguably a lot like Jenna, right on down to the same career trajectory. (I have not, however, tried to sabotage my own publication, and to this date, I’ve never eaten Razzles.) I often catch myself longing for a time in the past that seemed simpler, feeling that I failed to fully appreciate it while it was mine. I am often emotionally in that basement closet right with Jenna, wishing to go backwards, even for just a single day.

Yet, as I’ve gotten older and reached my own “30, flirty, and thriving” decade, I’ve realized that there’s one more lesson 13 Going on 30 teaches us. It’s easy to miss, because it’s wrapped up in a tidy happily-ever-after resolution. The movie ends with Jenna rectifying her past choices, altering the future so that she and Matt end up together. But she still doesn’t get to redo any of it; as the final scene comes to a close, Jenna seemingly continues her life as a 30-year-old, leaving her unlived past behind.

It’s a pretty bittersweet ending when you think about it, but it also serves as an important reminder: The present is what matters most. And while it’s only human nature to romanticize things that came before, or yearn for what’s ahead, the reality is that looking backward at time that has already passed takes you out of the moment as much as daydreaming about the future.

Jenna wasn’t living her life to the fullest at her 13th birthday party because she was so anxious to skip forward, but she also wasn’t truly living at age 30 when she was wallowing in regret.

It’s only when she manages to live in the moment that she reaches something resembling inner peace.

Ultimately, there’s a lot I learned from Jenna Rink: how to spice up a party, how to get out of a bad date, that there’s no bad occasion for glitter eyeshadow—the list goes on. But most importantly, she reminds me to be aware of my surroundings, to take in the details of my everyday life (yes, even the boring parts), and to value the things that are happening to me right now, before they become memories. In the real world, there are no do-overs, no time-traveling dollhouses, and no dramatic basement closets with Billy Joel singing in our ears. All we have is right now, and that in and of itself can be magical all on its own.

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