(2003) *** 1/2 R
100 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Gary Winick. Cast: Jennifer Garner, Mark Ruffalo, Kathy Baker, Phil Reeves, Alex Black.

In her best-selling social tract Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher asserts that "Parents know only too well that something is happening to their daughters. Calm, considerate daughters grow moody, demanding and distant. Girls who loved to talk are sullen and secretive...Just when they most need a home base, they cut themselves loose without radio communications." If Reviving Ophelia were made into a film, it might look an awful lot like Thirteen, the independently produced film co-written by director Catheirne Hardwicke and then-thirteen-year-old Nikki Reed, one of the film's young stars.

From one perspective, Thirteen--with its worst-case scenario onslaught of self-destructive teenage rebellion--overplays the downward spiral of its young anti-hero, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood). But Thirteen connects, scarily, because it is as plausible as it is raucously thorough in the defiling of a once sunny and successful thirteen-year-old girl. Like Larry Clark's notorious Kids, Thirteen cares not for pulled punches, holding audiences in thrall until the cathartic climax and its literal and figurative ray of hope.

Wood, so good on TV's Once and Again, anchors the film with her tender-tart performance. In the opening moments, her face fills the frame, staring into the camera and alive with possibility and excitement. She is, in short, a perfect target for this film's Pleasure Island-bound Lampwick: a pathologically fun-loving delinquent named Evie (Reed). Evie's the most popular hottie in school, and her coy passive-aggressive act with Tracy easily hooks her new charge into thievery, drugs, "extreme" fashion and body piercing, and sex. The character of Tracy rides the edge of sympathy over the course of the film, but ultimately one understands her hapless abandon to be a hormonal spin-out of confusion and frustration.

Compounding the frustration are the best intentions of Tracy's mother Melanie (ever-brilliant Holly Hunter), who we immediately suspect might be too much of a friend and too little of a parent to her children (including Brady Corbet's slightly younger Mason). She labors to keep the family humming along, and after a turn for the worse, tries to force her way back into her daughter's emotional compound. Melanie has her own personal problems with which she must contend: latent, twelve-stepping alcoholism and a sometime hubby (Jeremy Sisto) in the same boat.

Hardwicke expertly choreographs the girls' long, long fall before Elliot Davis's jittery verité camera. Crisp editing by Nancy Richardson and an appropriately headachy soundtrack of juiced-up power pop and angsty rock seal the deal. Hardwicke--with her first feature--marks herself as one to watch. She cleverly makes Tracy's turning point, from straight-and-narrow innocence to manic, selfish chaos--into the film's most recognizable moment. When the popular Evie takes nonchalant notice of Tracy's hard-won new fashion, Wood does a euphoric dance with herself. The exotic acceptance of the popular crowd--with its promise of sex appeal and social credibility--trumps anything a tired family or decorous friends can offer. Scared loved ones can only wait, beckoning, for lost girls to meet them halfway.

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