"WHO ARE you really?"

That's a question that Caterina (Alice Teghil), a high school girl who has just moved from a small Italian seaside town to Rome, gets asked a lot in filmmaker Paolo Virzi's charming coming-of-age tale. She even appears to ask it of herself from time to time, as the hero of "Caterina in the Big City" vacillates between joining the posh kids, led by the upper-crusty government minister's daughter, Daniela (Federica Sbrenna), and the grunge set, led by Margherita (Carolina Iaquaniello), whose parents are left-leaning intellectuals.

But Virzi's film, which the director co-wrote with Francesco Bruni, is more than just another adolescent fish-out-of-water tale about a girl who can't decide whether she's preppy or alternative -- until she digs deep down, that is, and discovers that she's (surprise!) herself. The movie, a blend of gentle comedy and poignant drama, is also a sly commentary on the persistence of cliquishness into adulthood and the neurotic need of some grown-ups, particularly Caterina's insecure, social-climbing father (Sergio Castellitto), to belong.

The whole world, Virzi's movie seems to say, is high school.

Of course, he's right, to a degree. We all know certain people who have never stopped defining themselves (and others) by the clothes they wear, the length of their hair and the music (or politics) they listen to. It's the lucky ones who outgrow this.

Caterina, as it turns out, is one of them. It just takes her a while. At first, it takes her hanging out with Margherita, a thrift-shop-chic, alt-rock chick who gets our heroine drunk and sick, talking her into a painful tattoo along the way. After that fiasco, Caterina switches allegiance, hanging out with Daniela next, a limo-riding brat who teaches the naive new girl from the sticks such niceties as the application of makeup and how to shoplift from expensive department stores. There is one benefit of that association, however. Through Daniela, Caterina meets Gianfilippo (Martino Reviglio), an aristocratic boy whom Caterina really seems to like -- and who really seems to like her back. That is, until his snobbish relatives pass along the message to him that she's not our kind, dear.

Painful lessons, I know, but not as painful as the ones that Caterina's dad is simultaneously experiencing. An aspiring novelist who works as a teacher, he's still living the glory days of his youth, when the school he attended was full of the children of powerful doctors, lawyers, politicians and academics. Unfortunately, the world he lives in now is mostly filled with small humiliations, both from his own unresponsive students and the parents of his daughter's classmates.

The need to resolve the question of identity will lead to two very different choices for Caterina and her father, neither of which is entirely happy nor entirely sad. As "Caterina in the Big City" makes clear, who you really are has nothing to do with which social group you decide to define yourself in terms of. It is, in the end, less a story about being -- being liked, being accepted, being successful -- than it is about becoming.

CATERINA IN THE BIG CITY (Unrated, 106 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and sexual references. In Italian with subtitles. At the Avalon.

Alice Teghil finds out just what she's made of as the title character in the Italian film "Caterina in the Big City."