Dir: Catherine Hardwicke. US. 2002. 100mins

An impressive directorial debut by established production designer Catherine Hardwicke (Vanilla Sky), Thirteen offers a glimpse into the sex-and-drug realities of life as a teenage girl in LA. The film is particularly disquieting as it is based on both the screenplay and experiences of a 13-year-old who then took one of the starring roles. Yet authentic as the result is, the scenario was made many US buyers at Sundance pause -including the film's admirers - since the requisite R-rating effectively prevents a US teen audience from seeing themselves portrayed unflinchingly on screen. In the end it wasFox Searchlight Pictures that took Thirteen for most of the world (Working Title Films who came up with additional funding just as the film was about to start, hangs on to UK rights). Tough as this film might be in terms of marketing, particularly after how films such as Virgin Suicides have fared at the box office, abroad at least it will not be seen as the taboo-breaker it is at home, and stands a strong chance of a wider release.

At a time where realistic teen-movies are a hot item, Thirteen could be the film which tests the limits of the genre. The question is whether audiences, both parents and teenagers, are ready for the truth or would rather stick with more colourful versions of their lives.

Shot on Super 16 for a budget of less than $2m, Thirteen's production history will attract as much media attention as the film itself. Autobiographical up to a point, it is based on the experiences of then-13 year-old Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the script with Hardwicke. Initially they envisioned a teen comedy but the result was something else entirely. The film opens with the face of a young girl grinning, saying she wants to be slapped. It transpires that Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) is wasted from sniffing glue with Evie (Reed). The story then jumps back in time to explain how these girls arrived here.

Tracy is living with her single mom Mel (Hunter) and older brother (Corbet) in Venice, California. Initially one of the 'nice' girls, Tracy is drawn to the school's most popular and provocative girl, Evie. Soon she is throwing out her stuffed animals along with her childhood. After she snatches a woman's purse she earns her place in the clique, leading to drugs, drinking, piercing and inevitably sex.

In style and content, Thirteen lies somewhere between Lukas Moodysson's brilliant debut Fucking Amal (Show Me Love) and Larry Clarke's teen dramas. As Evie insinuates herself into Tracy's life, she becomes a parasite not only on Tracy but on the rest of the household: Mel, a recovering alcoholic trying to keep her home together and hang on to her boyfriend Brady (Sisto), a supposedly recovering addict. Mother and daughter fight continuously and, as the colours slowly drain from the images, Tracy sinks deeper into hormone-fuelled self-loathing and, ultimately, self mutilation.

While Thirteen is first and foremost a film for teens, parents initially shocked by the tough teenage life this portrays will learn much form watching this excellent drama. The well-crafted script refuses to take sides, no one gets off the hook - parents are as much to blame as the girls - and there are no easy solutions.

Holly Hunter, who also executive produced, is touching as the struggling mother, but it is the girls who steal the show. Wood, who plays the Reed character in the film, is particularly convincing.

Prod co: Antidote Films
Exec prod:
Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Liza Chasin, Holly Hunter
Jeff Levy-Hinte, Michael London
Hardwicke, Nikki Reed
Elliot Davis
Nancy Richardson
Mark Mothersbaugh
Holly Hunter, Evan Rachel Wood, Reed, Jeremy Sisto, Brady Corbet, Deborah Kara Unger, Kip Pardue