EARLY IN "American Pie," the deliriously raunchy debut from the directing/producing team of Paul and Chris Weitz (brothers and co-writers of the clever "Antz"), there is a discussion about Disney's animated film "The Little Mermaid." One lusty adolescent male turns to another and announces: "Ariel is sooooo hot."

Now, as someone who can distinctly remember having pubescent fantasies about Brenda Starr (the foxy comic strip character created by Dale Messick, not the Brooke Shields movie abomination), I knew then and there that I was going to love this warped, hysterical and -- believe it or not -- sweet little gem of a movie.

Ribald in the extreme and wildly, wickedly funny, the comic tale of four high-school seniors who resolve to lose their virginity by prom night is for anyone who hasn't forgotten the days of acne and hormones, when certain body parts seemed to demand more than their share of mental energy and even a cartoon redhead was able to provoke lustful fantasies. "American Pie" is for anyone who has ever dreamed about, attempted to get or has actually had sex, although many in its target audience will need to resort to asking a parent or guardian to buy them a ticket.

This is one movie that well deserves its R rating, with a plethora of vulgar language and a parade of gross-out humor that makes "There's Something About Mary" seem like "Mary Poppins." But, let's face it, that's not going to stop teenagers from rushing out in droves to sneak into "American Pie." Advance buzz about one notorious scene involving an autoerotic use of fresh baked goods (hence the movie's title) has guaranteed that. Concerned grown-ups can at least take consolation in the fact that deep in its throbbing, er, heart, "American Pie" is also a movie about -- dare I say it? -- love.

Yes, love. Raw, carnal gratification is only one of the many ways in which the most intimate of acts is depicted in this movie. In addition to seduction, humiliation, and degradation, there is also the purest, most idealized kind of self-sacrificial Romeo-and-Juliet passion.

But I digress.

It's senior year at East Great Falls High, and virgins Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) are trying to get lucky. Kevin's the only one of the four friends with a steady girlfriend, but Vicky (Tara Reid) is waiting until the moment is just right.

"It's not a space shuttle launch," counsels her more experienced, and less particular, friend Jessica (played by the tart-tongued Natasha Lyonne). "It's sex." Kevin, meanwhile, has inherited a makeshift manual nicknamed "the bible" from his older brother, containing arcane bedroom secrets like the "Tongue Tornado" that have been passed down from senior class to senior class.

Jim's just your typical red-blooded boy (who probably spends too much time watching the scrambled porno channel on cable), but his father (Eugene Levy) is anything but average. In one particularly memorable scene, Dad introduces Jim to the wonders of skin magazines, with delightfully clinical descriptions of each genre.

Oz is a lacrosse player who learns that by listening to girls 'n' stuff he might actually improve his odds of scoring. He even takes the radical step of joining the jazz choir in order to impress the angelic songbird Heather (Mena Suvari).

Finch, as knowledgeable about golf as ancient Latin and with a phobia about using public restrooms, doesn't stand a chance at love -- that is, until he pays Jessica $200 to spread rumors of his sexual prowess. Suddenly the pencil-necked geek has a waiting list of admirers, until a prank involving a laxative exposes him to more public ridicule than even his inflated romantic reputation can withstand.

On the surface, "American Pie" sounds like any number of recent teen sex farces (such as "Can't Hardly Wait" and "10 Things I Hate About You"), and it certainly won't disappoint the Clearasil crowd. But along with the expected irreverence, there's an honest intelligence at work here that doesn't try to paint adolescents as simply smaller and better-looking versions of their parents. With the exception of Stifler (Seann W. Scott), a loutish jock who gets his comeuppance in an extraordinary scene involving a beer laced with what we'll call "genetic material," all the characters here are complex, fully three-dimensional people, not archetypes.

Furthermore, although "Pie's" point of view is predominantly masculine, the girls give as good as they get, especially a hands-on exchange student named Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) and a surprisingly randy band geek named Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), who seems to have come up with a novel way of practicing the flute.

It's filthy, fabulous fun that in the end has the good sense to put this chapter of the human comedy in perspective. As Jim is forced to acknowledge after a particularly embarrassing public exposure involving a bedroom WebCam and the Internet, "I'm not going to go around breaking my [expletive] over something that, quite frankly, isn't that damn important."

Maybe not, but doesn't it make the world go round?

AMERICAN PIE (R, 95 minutes) -- What doesn't it contain? No violence but profanity aplenty, sex, partial nudity, masturbation, incontinence and body fluids. Area theaters.

CAPTION: Eugene Levy gives Jason Biggs some fatherly advice in "American Pie."