Reviewed by PETER CALDER

(Herald rating: * * * *)

The poster may seem to promise entertainment for girls who want to have fun but this is a downbeat and sometimes harrowing movie about the extremes of suburban adolescent dysfunction.

Yet if it's a hard watch, it's also a rewarding one. Filmed like a documentary and written like a psychodrama, it's driven by performances of preternatural assurance (from Wood and Reed) and luminous intelligence (from Hunter).

It's the debut as director for Hardwicke who has long batted in the big league as a production designer (Three Kings, Vanilla Sky). She works from a script that Reed, barely 13 at the time, wrote from her own life and the material shimmers with authenticity.

Thirteen is, of course, the age of the film's two protagonists: Tracey (Wood), is a schoolgirl in a slightly down-at-heel suburb of Los Angeles.

Her disgust at her own conformity and childishness is matched by her adoration for the cool and popular Evie, an eerily precocious and casually delinquent stunner to whom boys (and wannabe girls) are irresistibly drawn.

She dresses, then steals, to impress and before long becomes the centre of Evie's inner circle in a relationship that looks exciting but becomes gradually more and more predatory.

What's quite brilliant about Reed's screenplay is the maturity of its vision. She knows and she shows how alluring friendship can be for a teenager grasping for a sense of self and the new friends' excitement is almost palpable. But she is keenly aware of how corrosive and manipulative teen friendship can be as well and she conveys that by locating her story in characters of radiant individuality.

The kids' performances are beyond praise and backed up by fantastic work from the adult ensemble.

Hunter, who has not sounded a false note in her career, impresses as Tracey's mother Melanie, a reformed alcoholic whose weathered face and work-scarred hands bespeak her hard life and her sincerity. Her scenes with Tracey are powerfully convincing and her relationship with her boyfriend (Sisto, who plays Brenda's weirded-out brother in Six Feet Under) is subtly and sympathetically drawn.

There are moments that feel slightly earnest: in a scene in which the girls visit boutiques on Melrose Ave, the camera casts one too many ironic glances at a billboard that avers that "Beauty is Truth".

But this is a film of some mastery: the swirling hand-held camerawork by the gifted cinematographer Elliot Davis never feels obtrusive or studied but instead takes us deep into the characters' lives and the actors never flinch from the close-up gaze. It's tough but it's recommended.

Cast: Holly Hunter, Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, Jeremy Sisto, Catherine Hardwicke

Running time: 99 mins

Rating: R16 (violence, offensive language, drug use, sex scenes)

Screening: Academy