It’s a well known rule of the movies that it’s damned tough being a former child star. Hollywood is littered with tales of one-time cute kiddie actors and actresses who have ended up fading into obscurity, going off the rails or both.

There’s the famous likes of Drew Barrymore, who somehow managed to resuscitate her career after a heavy drugs problem, having shot to fame aged three in ET. It’s a problem many former child stars have battled with – most famously Judy Garland, but also countless actors and actresses who found, on getting closer to adulthood, that the only reason they used to find work was because they looked cute, and were unable to deal with it.

Christina Ricci is one of those rare female child stars – along with Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly and Kirsten Dunst out of the current Hollywood crop – who have managed to make the transition to a grown-up acting career with relatively few setbacks. Having first hit the big time at the age of eleven in The Addams Family back in 1991, following an early successful part alongside Cher and Winona Ryder in 1990′s Mermaids, there was something about her that was old before her years. She looked weird – huge eyes, an abnormally round head – and so perfectly fitted the part. At the time, however, there was no way anyone could have guessed that this bizarre-looking little kid would mature into a curvy, sultry, but still decidedly unusual-looking young woman.

So, having gone from weird little kid to strangely attractive teenager, Ricci also made the move from big budget Hollywood to quirky indie flicks, and ended up in some of the best cult films of the mid to late 1990s, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Buffalo 66 to The Ice Storm and Sleepy Hollow. But for the last few years she seems to have been taking more standard roles – even including a guest spot on mainstream TV in Ally McBeal. This is something of which Ricci herself has been more than aware – she’s even stated in interviews that over the last few years she’d been getting so bored with the lack of interest in roles that had been coming her way that she was thinking of quitting acting altogether.

Now, however, at long last she’s got a part she can really sink her teeth into, and one that is, once again, taking her former child star status and ripping its memory to shreds. How many other child stars could you imagine being introduced in a movie dressed only in a pair of skimpy pants and a crop top, covered in blood and bruises, and then go on to produce one of the most nuanced portrayals of a psychologically scarred and highly vulnerable sexual predator ever seen on screen?

The central theme of how early abuse can lead to increasingly poor decisions in later life is one with which many child stars can doubtless identify, yet Ricci’s cunning is that, unlike many fellow former kiddie actors, she has channelled the leftover angst into a complicated on-screen performance, rather than letting her own life slip into disaster. With fine support from co-star Samuel L Jackson, firmly making the move into older man territory after a few years of playing middle-aged, this is a tip-top character study.

Fully conscious that in making Ricci’s sexually abused young nymphomaniac quite so sultry and attractive the audience is made to feel uncomfortable for fancying such a psychologically damaged woman, the film skates close to the ice. But the end result is a far more intelligent and thoughtful movie than the deliberately exploitation-style packaging might have you believe. In the process, Ricci has turned in one of her best acting jobs to date – it’s a good thing she hasn’t decided to quit just yet.