SINCE THE AGE of 16, Miranda July has been making art of some form or another and hasn't held a day job since 23, when one of her last employers was Pop-A-Lock, a company whose employees drive around rescuing people who have locked their keys in their cars.

Dropping out of the University of California at Santa Cruz after a year and a half, the now-31-year-old jane-of-all-trades has a resume that includes credits as a playwright; short story author; performance, sound and video artist; alt-rock musician; creator of interactive Web sites; and 'zine publisher. That's in addition to not one but two appearances in the Whitney Museum of American Art's prestigious biennial exhibition and her most recent honor: the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a first-time filmmaking prize for her debut feature, "Me and You and Everyone We Know." (See review on Page 32.)

"I'd wanted to make a feature film since I was a teenager," says July, who exchanged her surname of Grossinger for the more poetic-sounding one. (She borrowed it from a character in her first play.) It was just a matter of finding the right idea, she says, one "that would take up that much room." It came to her -- or at least some of the characters, plot points and settings did -- while traveling in support of another project. "I got on the el train in Chicago," she says, "where I was on tour, and had this idea of a father and two sons, the hand burning, and the curator and artist and the whole arena of the department store -- more than anything else, a feeling of what this world felt like -- and I got off the train and I said to myself, 'Oh, good. My first movie.' "

Placing it on the back burner, it took her a couple of years to write the script between other commitments, although once she began to approach it in a more "rigorous" fashion, it was done in six months. Though July plays Christine, an aspiring video artist with a boring day job who is, the filmmaker says, based in part on her twenty-something self, there are other characters, notably Christine's wary love interest, a divorced shoe salesman named Richard, that are based on her as well. "She's the one that looks the most like me," July admits, "but some of the things Richard does are clearly more me. Yesterday, in fact, I was thinking, 'Christine is the part of me that is love and open and daring. But I'm also the one who would kick her out of the car.' "

July describes her method of filmmaking as less theoretical than intuitive, relying on instinct to know when to pull back and when not to, especially when it comes to some of the more arresting scenes in "Me and You." Of a park-bench kiss between a female art dealer and a small boy, a kiss that could be read as either tender or erotic, July says she listened to the advice of others -- but went with her gut. "Some people whose opinions I respected said the kiss between the dealer and boy was too much. But the kiss is where I'm at. I have to go to where it stops for me."

"It's really just about the control of the work," says July, who acknowledges that "you sell out in so many ways, just by breathing." Still, she insists that she'll never let her vision -- in whatever form and venue it may take -- get focus-grouped to the point where "I can't make the thing I want."

"I don't see what the point is," she says. "It's so hard to make a movie. What would be the point if your heart wasn't right there with it? Why bother? It's better to just do something where you can be free." What will be interesting to watch is how the quirky storytelling of her first mainstream outing holds up under the pressures of early success and the demands of the market. "If this movie makes money it will be the first thing," July says. "But I've gotten this far. Before, we didn't have anything to point to and now we do. So far, it's worked out."

-- Michael O'Sullivan

Miranda July, director of "Me and You and Everyone We Know."