Kate Dollenmayer makes one of the year's splashiest un-splashy debuts in "Funny Ha Ha," in which she delivers a spot-on portrayal of a sweetly hangdog heroine.

Dollenmayer plays Marnie, a recent college graduate living in Boston and navigating the unemployment, thwarted romance and ennui of post-graduate life. While she parties with her college friends, loses jobs, vows to quit partying and contemplates whether to get a tattoo, she secretly pines for Alex (Christian Rudder, of the rock band Bishop Allen), a cocky computer programmer who has a talent for leading her on even when he's rejecting her.

Writer-director Andrew Bujalski, who co-stars as one of Marnie's erstwhile suitors, has made "Funny Ha Ha" with a loose, improvisatory vibe, lending the fictional film the credence of cinema verite as he observes young lives in transition. (See In Focus on Page 31.) With its aimless eye, nonprofessional cast and inconclusive sensibility, this comic drama bears a whiff of Richard Linklater's "Slacker" as well as the early work of John Cassavetes.

As promising as Bujalski clearly is as a filmmaker, "Funny Ha Ha" would be a nonstarter without Dollenmayer, who in real life is an animator in Austin. (As fate would have it, she worked on Linklater's "Waking Life.") Lanky and hollow-eyed, she bumbles and mumbles her way through Marnie's life as if channeling the coolest, funniest girl we all knew in college, the one whose biggest flaw was her own lack of self-confidence. With Marnie, Dollenmayer has managed to transform a sad sack into an indie screen goddess.

-- Ann Hornaday