There aren't many "small"movies any more - the ones without an ad push, or volumes of critical consensus, or festival awards. But I rediscovered today how amazing it can be to watch a movie totally without preconception when I saw Caterina in the Big City.

An Italian film from 2003, finally making an incredibly low-key Stateside run, Caterina is superficially a coming-of-age story about a young girl who leaves her country home for Rome when her father gets transferred. Her new life is full of cliques and peer pressures that she has never known. Etc. etc.

Two things raise this above the usual level of the genre, though. The first is that Caterina, unlike almost all of her American compatriots, is played by an age-appropriate actress. And more amazingly still, she acts like a 15 year-old, and not an extra-hormonal adult (I don't want to give away the ending, but what it says about teen sexuality is much more in keeping with the way we did things back in my day than a whole fleet of WB soaps).

What really makes the movie stand out, though, is how it draws a line between the social world of teens and the social world of adults. Caterina's world is defined by cliques - the children of Fascists vs. the children of Communists, already stratifying into their parents' idealogies. Her negotiation between these competing worlds mirrors the same process that her father must struggle with - the film sets up a parallel that suggests that the political and social divisions of adult life are born from the same impulse that leads to the classical caste system of high school. The amazing part is that this comparison is never forced or sluggish: the film thrives on this connection of the adolescent to the political, even though the political specifics have a hard time making their way out of Italy.

The film is not without flaw: for one it starts to bog down pretty badly about halfway through, and only fully recovers for the last ten minutes or so. And Caterina, for the most part, is a fairly blank slate; while this allows her to be the mode for the film's polemic, it makes her a bit unsympathatic as a heroine, although Alice Teghil plays her to near-perfection. But these hardly make in unworthy, especially in comparison to the legions of cookie-cutter American teen movies. It's on the waning edge of its US engagement, but if you stumble across it, there's a lot of good to be had.