Thirteen is a lot like its protagonists: difficult, way out of control, yet ultimately sympathetic. It opens with two 13-year-old girls, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Evie (Nikki Reed), getting high on inhalants, laughing as they literally beat each other up in the privacy of Tracy’s bedroom. Things don’t let up in the next 100 minutes, as writer/director Catherine Hardwicke, in her feature debut, flashes back to the origin and development of the girls’ wild relationship.

At the beginning, the shaky camera work and insanely quick cuts are annoying. But as the film rolls on, they’re less jarring and pretentious – or is it they’re less noticeable because the movement really does illuminate the terrifying actions of these self-destructive kids?

Wood (of television’s Once and Again) and Reed, who co-wrote the film based on her own experiences (let’s hope she’s okay now), brilliantly portray the troubled adolescents with throbbing intensity. At the outset, Tracy is a seemingly normal Los Angeles seventh-grader who writes angst-ridden, good poetry, and more or less communicates with her mom, Mel (Holly Hunter), a laid-back hairdresser who works on clients at home, and who happens to have a reformed drug addict boyfriend.

Like many a junior high student, Tracy is seduced by her school’s most popular girl: gorgeous Evie, who flaunts her rebelliousness on her pierced midriff. Evie initially spurns her, but Tracy wins her way into the fast group by stealing a wallet and taking her cohorts on a shopping spree on Melrose Avenue. The girls are master manipulators at getting and doing what they want, while managing to hide their dangerous activities – shoplifting, drugs, piercing, lap dancing, oral sex, cutting themselves – from their parents.

Evie becomes a mainstay at Mel and Tracy’s house, and though Mel seems to believe Evie has a guardian, the audience doesn’t necessarily – until the wasted woman actually does pop up, offering gems of discipline like telling the kids to limit themselves to one beer apiece.

Yet the film progresses beyond shocking scenes of girls behaving badly. The conflict between parents’ and teens’ needs and priorities is played with convincing complexity in Thirteen, making that – along with fine performances – its strength. While Mel certainly won’t win any parenting awards, she’s isn’t entirely absent, as is Tracy’s dad, who shows up for two minutes at Mel’s request, asks "What’s the problem?" then races off to his next appointment.

Hunter’s gritty performance illustrates many a mother’s all-real dilemma, a familiar problem amounting to a matter of time and energy. Although Mel doesn’t ignore Tracy – she takes her shopping and allows Evie, with whom she bonds, to stay at their house – she’s also busy with her clients and friends, and her not-half-bad boyfriend, a fellow recovering addict.

While Thirteen doesn’t represent so-called typical teen behavior any more than The Lizzie McGuire Movie does, the movie does reveal the precarious balance of family dynamics and how gaps in connections could lead to the beginnings of destruction.

Thirteen is no after-school special with a pat message for kids, but it compellingly sheds light on a terrifying world, and in the end, suggests there’s hope for survival.

– Leslie Katz