Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, starring Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Sisto, Brady Corbet, Deborah Kara Unger and Kip Pardue.

With 'Kids' and 'Bully', director Larry Clarke brought us into a disturbing world where youngsters' lives are dominated by crime, drugs and sex. Catherine Hardwicke's 'Thirteen' is not as visceral as Clarke's vision of youth, yet the resonance is striking. Wherever there are kids and teens acting beyond what is socially acceptable, the result is always unsettling. So it is here too.

Tracy Freeland (Wood) seems like your average teenager - awkward, confused, dreamy and irritable. Living with her divorced mother and older brother - and occasionally some of her mother's bohemian friends - Tracy's is a strained but respectable existence. And yet the warning signs are seen early on here, with a bathroom, a scissors and a scarred arm emerging as a refuge for Tracy in times of distress.

Trapped in the development limbo between childhood and pre-adulthood, Tracy is predictably afflicted with a crippling desire to fit in and be 'cool'. To this end, she zones in on the most sought after girl at school, Evie Zamora (Reed). As friendship blossoms, so too does Tracy's descent into murky waters. Schoolwork goes out the window, shop lifting becomes the norm, and soon drink, drugs and sex slink into view.

'Thirteen' is bleak. Teens going off the rails is nothing new, but the extent to which families suffer because of it will always strike a chord. What's especially good about this is that the pace of the girls' slide into troublesome conduct is extremely credible. It might start with a tattoo or body piercing, a blind eye is turned once too often, the result is almost always the same.

But even though Hardwicke's film creates a depressing tone of teens trying to find a way being guided by adults who've lost theirs, it never feels like the director is playing the 'blame the parents' card. Her aim, for right or wrong, seems to be solely to create awareness of teen behaviour in modern society. Is it scare mongering? Well, it might not be wholly representative, but only the naïve would totally ignore the sentiment.

The casting here is pretty much spot on. As the mother who's as damaged as the teens she's trying to control, Holly Hunter is very strong. Yet she is still outshone by the stunning young leads, Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed. Wood's part is the most demanding, and she doesn't put a foot wrong. Reed, whose awareness of sex and sexuality is far too convincing for comfort, also co-wrote the script. That fact alone gives the whole project an extra layer of authenticity and unease.

Raw, gritty and deeply unsettling, 'Thirteen' will linger in the mind longer than anyone could wish. A pre-Christmas date movie this ain't.

Tom Grealis