In the arty exploitation flick "Thirteen," first-time director Catherine Hardwicke cranks up the volume to maximum shriek. A story of a Valley girl gone bad, the film energetically samples a couple of reliable standards: the classic juvenile delinquent movie that's as much a romp as a cautionary tale, and the emotionally damp after-school special about cross-generational confusion, then whips them into a frenzy. The look is fresh — it's a tossup if the film or the kids are more stylish — even if its story about a girl martyred on the cross of reckless youth is as old as Joan of Arc's.
Boys will be bad boys, "Lord of the Flies" nasty, but as anyone who's ever been a girl knows, it's the wee women who are truly scary. Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) figures this out the first day of junior high. A tentative girl with the long, reedy limbs of the newly sprouted, Tracy enters her new school smiling, only to be elbowed aside by ugly Darwinian reality. Next to the gum-and-thong-snapping Lolitas, Tracy and her cute ankle socks are so 12 years old. She looks like a veritable baby next to the school's reigning babe, Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed), a sly, sultry beauty who looks like she was dreamed up by Jail Bait quarterly but was in fact cooked up by Hardwicke and Reed, using the young actor's life as inspiration.
Beauty and the beast in one, Evie is a classic femme fatale and, as the story takes its inevitable course, a monster manipulator. She and her friends rule the school and its boys, and although Evie doesn't immediately notice the new girl hovering nearby — excited, curious, eager to join in — she's quick to pounce. Evie knows what she wants (power); Tracy thinks she knows (popularity). What Tracy can't know is what being the envy of everyone else costs Evie. The new girl wants something else too — another female to cling to instead of her mother, Melanie (Holly Hunter). A struggling single mom, Melanie loves Tracy with overwhelming force, but she doesn't see that her daughter wants and maybe even needs more than motherly love.
When kids go wild at the movies there's usually a moral at the end of the freakout, something about striking the right parental balance between love and boundaries. Even Larry Clark, the impresario of young flesh run amok in films like "Kids," tends to wag his finger, usually at moms and dads as absent as Charlie Brown's. "Thirteen" sticks to a similar outline — a couple of characters take a terrific emotional beating — but it's happily free of the usual cant where everyone takes responsibility while no one takes any blame. Tracy's impossible, but Melanie takes her share of hits; an anxious 12-stepper, she's still learning how to live clean and sober, and she's still a bit shaky around men. But she's neither a witch nor a flake — just touchingly imperfect.
So are the girls. Giggly, giddy and terrifying, Tracy and her new pack nip at one another like she-wolves, yet they're never less than real teens. A former production designer whose credits include "Laurel Canyon," Hardwicke has an eye for detail verging on the anthropological, and she gets these kids' lives down. Early in the film there's a knockout scene of Tracy chasing after Evie. Tracy's already started to transform into the girl of her desires (those ankle socks are about to be history), but she hasn't figured out how to infiltrate the tribe. She stops Evie, offering up a shy hello. Squared off like gunslingers, they begin scanning, checking out each other's clothes with laser precision as a codependency is born.
Only audiences that have been locked inside a bomb shelter for the last 50 years will be shocked by what happens in "Thirteen." The clothes are scantier and the music heavier on the bass since James Dean yelled "You're tearing me apart!" to his befuddled father in the mid-1950s melodrama "Rebel Without a Cause." But the story about the anguished outsider trying to fit in no matter what hasn't changed much since the movies discovered the troubled teenager. Instead of drag racing and flashing switchblades like the kids in "Rebel" (and occasionally racing off a cliff), these girls get stoned, shoplift, hang out with the wrong boy, sometimes worse. The homes are broken now and the fathers are missing in action, but the pain's exactly the same.
"Thirteen" isn't in league with the Nicholas Ray classic, but in its ferocious energy and lead performances it's many cuts above most big-screen soap operas. Hardwicke throws herself and the camera into the fray and rarely steps down the pace. (Elliot Davis' slightly blurred digital-video cinematography fits the fluid mood perfectly.) Even if you don't remember what it's like to be a kid — surging with hormones, high on your first taste of freedom, desperately sad, desperately happy — the movie shoves it back in your face. And just when the girls start to drive you crazy, there's Hunter to remind you just how good she can be. Her performance is so deeply felt, so painful in its emotional nakedness, that it's as if she'd wrenched the character out of some personal agony. She's a fierce heartbreaker.
'Thirteen' MPAA rating: R, for drug use, self-destructive violence, language and sexuality - all involving young teens. Times guidelines: Self-mutilation, emotional violence. Extremely disturbing. Holly Hunter ... Melanie
Evan Rachel Wood ... Tracy
Nikki Reed ... Evie
Jeremy Sisto ... Brady
Brady Corbet ... Mason Fox Searchlight Pictures presents in association with Michael London Productions and Working Title Films an Antidote Films Production, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Catherine Hardwicke. Writers Catherine Hardwicke, Nikki Reed. Producers Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Michael London. Director of photography Elliot Davis. Production designer Carol Strober. Editor Nancy Richardson. Costume designer Cindy Evans. Music Mark Mothersbaugh. Music supervisors Amy Rosen, Michelle Norrell. Casting Jakki Fink, Shani Ginsberg. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. In limited release.