In the Italian countryside where she's spent her entire young life, Caterina (Alice Teghil) is just an average adolescent girl -- bookish, shy and happily unschooled in the dreary ways of the world. But after her frustrated schoolteacher father (Sergio Castellitto) relocates the family to his native Rome, she suddenly finds herself in an awkward class-conscious limbo -- a loner "hillbilly" among contentious cliques whose parents literally define the country's day-to-day political struggles. For her part, Caterina doesn't much care about politics or even class -- it's enough to simply have friends. But friendship -- first with the brooding bohemian daughter of a left-wing activist (Carolina Iaquaniello) and later with the spoiled debutante daughter of a right-wing government minister (Federica Sbrenna) -- can come with a price even more excruciating than loneliness.
Teghil's sweet innocence and sad vulnerability are the film's irresistible heart and soul, evoking instant empathy throughout her roller-coaster coming-of-age journey. The always remarkable Castellitto ("Mostly Martha," "Don't Move"), meanwhile, encapsulates the broader issues of Italian politics and class warfare in the person of an increasingly unstable family man, emblematic of the vast Italian middle-class that finds itself increasingly disenfranchised in the battle between left-wing zealots and right-wing elitists.
Even in a polarized, blue-and-red state America, it's unlikely that the film will strike much of a political chord -- words like "Fascist" and "Communist," so loaded and historically engrained in the Italian psyche, are too far removed from American mainstream to have much impact. But Teghil's heartfelt Caterina is nothing if not impactful, the living embodiment of the teenage hopes, dreams and insecurities that seem to transcend culture, gender and nationality. And despite some nominal similarities to mainstream American comedies like "Mean Girls" and "Clueless," "Caterina in the Big City" is very much its own film, honest and straightforward, without any commercial pretense. Virzi and co-writer Francesco Bruni start to fumble things a bit near the end, too eager to quickly and neatly tie up their various threads, but it's a small stumble relative to the touching tale that precedes it. Starring Alice Teghil, Sergio Castellitto, Margherita Buy, Federica Sbrenna and Carolina Iaquaniello. Directed by Paolo Virzi. Written by Paolo Virzi and Francesco Bruni. Produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini and Marco Chimenz. An Empire release. Drama. Italian-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 106 min