Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) has a deep, dark secret: she cuts herself. At thirteen, she is on the brink of something, but she is not sure what. In the seventh grade, she is a poet, makes good grades, and has a small circle of friends who, like her, are different from those popular girls who move in the fast lane. Her bedroom still is filled with teddy bears and Barbie dolls.

Melanie (Holly Hunter), her mother, is a recovering alcoholic who runs a scattershot hairdresser operation out of their run-down home. She is in a relationship with Brady (Jeremy Sisto), who has just gotten out of a halfway house for his cocaine addiction. Tracy and her brother Mason (Brady Corbet) rarely see their divorced father, who is wrapped up in his business ventures.

Tracy yearns to fly, to have it all, to break out of her constricted little world of childhood. All around her billboard ads, fashion magazines, and malls packed with stuff encourage her in this dream of grandiosity. So one day, Tracy takes a leap, changes the way she dresses, and wins the attention of Evie (Nikki Reed), the “hottest chick in school.” The ticket into her inner circle is stealing a woman's purse and going on a wild shopping spree with these new friends.

Soon Evie is overseeing Tracy's makeover with body piercings, low-rider jeans, bare midriffs, fashion runway makeup, and dates with popular boys. As she gets deeper into this scene, Tracy moves further away from her mother, who admits to her AA sponsor that she is really scared about all the changes in her daughter. Evie is a first-class manipulator who knows how to get what she needs out of people. Claiming that the boyfriend of her guardian Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger) has beaten her, she convinces Tracy and Melanie to let her move into their home. In one of the most horrific scenes, Evie and Tracy get high on inhalants and slap each other in the face in a fit of hysteria and playfulness. Tracy has learned how to soar indeed.

Thirteen is a riveting film directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nikki Reed who plays Evie. The handheld camerawork, quick cuts, and zooms in and out seem tailor-made for the MTV audience, but plenty of parents will want to see this film as well. It is not the definitive portrait of what it means to be thirteen today — it would be a disservice to the wide variety of teens to make that broad a generalization. But this devastating portrait of two vulnerable girls with low self-esteem does have some universal elements. Everyone can recognize such common experiences as Tracy’s childlike fantasy of doing whatever she wants, Evie's desperate need to stand out and be noticed, the dangerous nature of a friendship built upon lies and irresponsible games, the rift between youth and parents whose relationships alternate between love and hate, and the scary things that can happen when we turn to others and the outside world for the respect and love we need to discover in the sacred center of our true selves.

Evan Rachel Hunter gives a gritty and soulful performance as Tracy, and Nikki Reed is sensational as the seductive Evie whose yearning for love and acceptance turns her into an out-of-control power monger. Holly Hunter hits all the right notes as Tracy’s mother, a codependent woman who is trying to save everyone around her while floundering about in a miasma of self-doubt. This mesmerizing psychodrama touches us with its harrowing depiction of three souls grasping for life preservers while bobbing around in a sea of troubles.

The DVD extras includes a very interesting audio commentary by the director and co-writer, Catherine Hardwicke, the star and co-writer Nikki Reed, and the two other stars, Evan Rachel Wood and Brady Corbet. There is also a "making of" featurette and a few deleted scenes.