Texas, the first feature from 29-year-old Italian director Fausto Paravidino, is clearly a very personal film. Paravidino co-wrote the screenplay with two of his stars, and, as Enrico the narrator, he himself also appears on screen. His movie has the feel of something for which public exposure is a bonus, not the goal; it exists because it has to, not because there is an audience to wow. That is not to say, however, that Paravidino isn't sure of himself as a filmmaker. Indeed, Texas practically explodes off the screen with a thrilling, inescapable confidence that expresses itself not in showy, attention-getting tricks but rather in a willingness to be wildly unconventional without regard for the reaction of viewers. The movie is crazed mix of tones, jumping from almost slapstick humor to complete solemnity at the drop of the hat, and combining one-joke, one-dimensional characters with fully-developed, tragic figures in virtually every scene. And yet, thrillingly, it works. Of the six New Directors/New Film offerings I've seen so far, Texas is easily the most assured, most accomplished of the bunch.

The film opens at its climax, with Enrico (Paravidino, who gives the character an intentionally irritating passivity) arriving at one of his friend Elisa's regularly parties. Shortly after his arrival, the editing becomes increasingly dizzying, giving us glimpses of characters that, at this point, are nothing more than strangers. We see each one in a state of crisis: there are tears, a fist-fight, and a pistol. After throwing his audience into this chaos, Paravidino then backs up three months, and presents us with the first of a trio of Saturdays, over the course of which we get to know his characters, and watch their relationships swell, falter, and crumble.

Through voice-over and hilarious cuts-ins in which characters pose for the camera, wave, and smile engagingly, Enrico introduces the audience to his group of friends. Gianluca (Riccardo Scamarcio) is a directionless pretty boy who has, for the first time, managed to stay with one girl for more than a few months. That girl is Cinzia (Iris Fusetti, radiating a very convincing confusion), whose relationship with Luca and his friends is the only source of warmth and attention in her life. Also ever-present are the financially-troubled Davide (Carlo Orlando), who has been picked on by his friends for so long that he no longer remembers how to stand up for himself, and Elisa (Alessia Bellotto), who seems to do nothing at all but throw parties and take care of her very political 10-year-old brother.

All of the friends are nearing 30, and all are secretly aware that they're far too old to be living the way they do. All five still live at home, and only Davide and Cinzia have jobs. The rest drift from night to night, bar to bar. They talk a lot about their plans for the future, but are both unable and unwilling to move on. This almost overpowering selfishness is rendered comical when seen against their collective lack of self-awareness. Each of them, though consumed to varying degrees by how they look to the outside world, is pathetically incapable of looking inside; not one of the five has any idea who he or she is. By contrast, Paravidino offers Alessandro and Maria (played, respectively, by Valerio Binasco and Valeria Golino), an unhappy couple in their 40s who, after decades of ignoring their own lives for the sake of peace, are forced into shattering self-awareness when Maria begins an affair with Luca.

What matters from this point on is less the progression of the movie's plot than the emotions it provokes, and the way in which they are expressed. Though there are other major events in Texas, the affair is the point around which almost everything turns. It causes people to look around them for the first time, and to make choices about who they are, and who they want to be. Binasco and Golino, in particular, are magnificent as the the mismatched husband and wife, both just awakening from years of emotional slumber. It is a rare actor who can make an inattentive cuckold both fascinating and sympathetic, and there's a bit of Daniel Auteuil in the quiet determination Binasco brings to the melancholy Alessandro; his performance is so powerful that I found myself holding my breath while he was on screen, for fear of missing the slightest movement, expression, or intonation. Golino, also, is equally powerful in what is a far showier role. In love for the first time, her Maria is unwilling to hide her feelings, but instead of glorying in them, she approaches the affair with a single-minded, serious focus, as if her apparent decision to finally live consists more of taking action than absorbing emotions.

Luca's circle of friends, too, are deeply affected by the affair's aftershocks, and their problems - Cinzia's first heartbreak, Enrico's loss of respect for his friend - are allowed by Paravidino to assume importance equal to that given the breakup of Maria and Alessandro's marriage. One of Paravidino's greatest successes in his debut feature, in fact, is his ability to see almost everything that transpires through twin lenses, one of them used by his characters, and the other by his audience. Through the former, events as minor as a pair of new shoes are of earth-shattering importance, and are given gravity by the film's profound willingness to take its characters seriously. Through the latter, however, almost everything that happens to Luca and his friends is somewhat pathetic, in part because of the gravity they assign each event and decision. To remind the viewer of this larger, more distant lens, Paravidino uses both things within the frame of the film (his characters' own words, the endless, predictable repetition of events) and those without, primarily his film's magical score. Composed by Nicola Tescari, the music is often orchestral and lush, and it comments on Texas as much as it supports it. Reserving its most swelling, dramatic strains for the most minor events on screen, the score rarely fails to poke gentle fun at the insignificance of the characters and events before it.

Despite the fact that its final moments give undeserved attention to two of its least likable characters, Texas remains a wonder to behold. Many new directors make audacious, passionate debuts. What sets Paravidino apart from his peers, however, is his ability to handle small, confused, internal moments just as assuredly as he does those full of broad humor. If he is this confident and accomplished at 29, it's positively frightening to think of the power Paravidino will wield as an old man of 40.