Hysteria masquerading as naturalism, first-time director Catherine Hardwicke's thirteen opens with a scene in which two seventh-grade girls, numb and giggly from huffing on aerosol cans, take dares to punch each other in the face. Like the sloppy French kisses that commence a crude deflowering at the beginning of Larry Clark's Kids, thirteen's most obvious antecedent, the images are the opening lines to a visual essay about the Youth Of Today, meant to jostle the adult audience out of its collective stupor. In lieu of any real perspective on their shocking observations, both Kids and thirteen seem intended as a wake-up call for naïve or absentee parents, who might still view adolescent life as a parade of slumber parties, sock hops, and ice-cream socials. After a while, this stream of horrors can't help but take on a panicked and excessively moralistic tone, like the parenting equivalent of an old drunk-driving film, all grisly pileups and smoking wreckage. A seasoned production designer with credits that include Three Kings and Vanilla Sky, Hardwicke (also like Clark) has an intuitive feeling for the way teens talk and act around each other, especially how peer pressure can cause an ordinary get-together to escalate into something much more dangerous. In less than a week, Hardwicke wrote the script with then-13-year-old Nikki Reed, a family friend whose own rocky adolescence gives the story some authenticity, even though its square coming-of-age trappings are strictly movie-of-the-week. Reed also acquits herself well in her acting debut, taking on the pivotal supporting role of a magnetic "bad girl" who puts the innocent heroine on the slippery slope from Barbies to blow jobs. In a galvanizing performance, Evan Rachel Wood stars as a generally sweet-natured girl whose bid for popularity takes a sudden, harrowing turn into drug use, shoplifting, and sexual experimentation. Her mind-and-body makeover comes courtesy of Reed, a troubled, manipulative player who leaves behind her drug-addled guardian (Deborah Kara Unger) and moves in with Wood and her single mother (Holly Hunter). A recovering alcoholic with problems of her own, Hunter initially indulges the girls' friendship, and by the time she picks up on Reed's poisonous influence, it's nearly too late to intervene. In a film built around clichés about out-of-control teens and running with the bad crowd, the mother-daughter relationship stands out as unusually complex and authentic, because Hardwicke doesn't cast judgment on single motherhood or even a former addict's ability to raise a child. Though thirteen too often mistakes hard realism for overheated spectacle, the heightened drama brings out the best in Wood and Hunter, who turn their climactic scene into an actors' workshop, charged with raw emotion. As the film barrels toward the outrageously histrionic, they nearly pull it back from the brink.