"Tex" is the latest in a string of male- passage movies; not "The Last Picture Show," but the last, lingering chorus of "Home on the Range." It's the tasteful, touching and teen-aimed story of a 15-year- old Okie who's awkward with women but hell on horseback.

This flat, faithful screen version of S.E. (Susan Eloise) Hinton's coming-of-age novel tells it like it is in the country's fat middle, where Pizza Huts huddle along the Interstate to Tulsa like a string of trashy beads.

"Tex" captures the changing countryside, the paving of the prairie and the people. There's dope and sex in Oklahoma, though nothing like a Ridgemont High: They're still fumbling with fooling around; still getting pregnant and having to get married; still smoking dope, not shooting it up. Life's at 55, but only just.

Tex McCormick, played by talented Matt Dillon, will stay on when his little town empties, pouring its brightest, best, fastest graduates into urban hideyholes. It's not the staying that bothers him, it's the being left. His girlfriend (Meg Tilly) is already a smart- mouthed feminist, brighter than he. She'll be leaving, he knows. And his brother, local basketball ace, is shooting for a scholarship to Indiana University, up and out of Bixby.

When we meet Tex and his older brother Mason -- sensitively acted by Jim Metzler -- they're as broke as busted broncos. Their father (Bill McKinney) has been long gone, five months or more on the rodeo circuit without sending word or money. Mason, at 18, is Mr. Responsible, the perfect American boy -- hard-working, well-scrubbed, smart.

Tex is fighting his father's rejection, his brother's superiority and his new interest in his best friend's sister. Most of all, he's missing his horse, which his brother sold to buy food. But Tex grows up a little, along with the heartland.

Because the plot's so true to life, it's a bit on the drab side. And when something extraordinary happens -- as it inevitably will if you wait long enough even in a small town -- it seems out of place. In one case, Tex and his brother pick up a hitchhiker who pulls a gun on them. There's a shootout and Tex becomes eyewitness news. It's all out of proportion to the schooldays, dirt-bike- riding, first-drunk, first-kiss stuff that make up the rest of the movie.

The plot's torn between what it thinks really happens and the need for action. Unlike "Diner," which proved that small moments can build into a revealing, precisely paced whole, "Tex" suffers from fits and starts. Though it lacks the mastery and maturity of "Diner" and the zest of "Breaking Away," "Tex" is a passage worth booking, a way back home.

TEX -- At the AMC Carrollton, Jerry Lewis Cinema, Roth's Montgomery, Roth's Randolph, Silver Spring West, Tysons Corner, Showcase Beacon Mall, Showcase Bradlick, Showcase Fair City Mall, Showcase Mercado, Sterling Towncenter, Tenley Circle.