Not an obligatory movie about how kids are not as naïve as we think, Thirteen is an unflinching, harsh and disturbing look at the descent of two 13-year-old girls into self-destruction. But Kids it’s not, and that’s a really good thing.

First-time director Catherine Hardwicke, a long-time production designer, shows how all the characters — not just Evan Rachel Wood’s stellar lead — are frazzled and fractured. Clearly, it isn’t just the girls who falsely think they’re ready for everything.

After flashing back four months, fractured but calm is how the movie begins. Tracy (Wood) is dealing with life as a child of divorce, making do with few amenities and living with hairstylist mother Melanie (Holly Hunter) and brother Mason (Brady Corbet).

But hooking up with the school’s resident hot / bad / popular girl Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the film and reportedly based it on her own experiences) pushes her toward an abyss of crime, sex and drugs that becomes a wild, disturbing tailspin.

Thirteen is tough enough to watch for a single guy with no sisters let alone parents with daughters. Hardwicke’s handheld camera style contributes to the overwhelming urgency and chaos. Numerous moments shock, but they’re not calculating about it. There is context, even with the parasitic Evie, because Thirteen doesn’t make her the villain in all of this, at least not until a third-act stumble.

No, we see the problems in Tracy’s home that may have been enabling her beneath the surface all along. Melanie is a recovering alcoholic who can’t tell anyone no, and we see her on-again boyfriend Brady (Jeremy Sisto) in a coke-induced meltdown that shows why he was off-again.

We care about them, and Tracy, and when Wood resorts to tweaked-out aggression amplified by drugs, it’s outright unnerving. It’s a tough and truthful performance in a film we accept as tough but hope against hope is not too truthful.