Very few films have been able to capture what it’s like to be alienated in any emotionally accurate way. After all, if it were easy to articulate the problems that can estrange a person from the rest of the world, then there probably would be far fewer outcasts. Fat Kid Rules the World gets it. The movie understands what it feels like to be separate from everyone else while wishing for a way to fit in, what it’s like to feel as if everyone is secretly waiting for you to embarrass yourself. It portrays this inner turmoil in a beautifully cinematic way that’s both painful and rather funny.

Even more remarkable is that such an assured film came from a first-time director, in this case character actor Matthew Lillard, continuing the career shift he began with his role in The Descendants. It’s a promising start for him, to say the least. There are sometimes “tells” that the string-puller behind a movie lacks experience, but none of them are here.

The story follows Troy Billings (Jacob Wysocki), a depressed high schooler whose life takes a drastic turn when dropout punk rocker Marcus (Matt O’Leary) saves him from a suicide attempt. Marcus decides that Troy will now be his friend, and press gangs him into joining his new band as a drummer. Despite not being able to play the drums, Troy is drawn to Marcus’s brand of “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me” outsider-ness, and embraces this odd new relationship. However, Marcus’s drug addiction and generally derelict lifestyle cause consternation for Troy’s strict father (Billy Campbell), and Troy soon realizes that his friend needs an intervention.

Wysocki delivers a wonderfully internal performance as Troy. At the risk of being too open in a movie review, I’ll just say that I recognized more than a little in his cripplingly quiet persona. Troy’s journey is far from Hollywoodish. The standard arc for a character, the one they’ll teach you to write in film school, sees them undergo a complete transformation over the course of the plot. But that isn’t really true to reality, which is hardly so narratively satisfying. Instead, Fat Kid depicts what it takes to transition from a bad place to one that’s at least somewhat healthier. Life progresses in small steps, and Wysocki is subtle but recognizable in creating Troy’s evolution.

The other players are fantastic, as well. O’Leary is a sad cutup who perfectly straddles the line between lovable and infuriating. The film doesn’t sugarcoat Marcus’s drug problem, but it also never gets preachy about it. The most interesting character, though, might be Campbell as Mr. Billings. While at first he seems like the old “strict military dad” stereotype being trod out again, it soon becomes apparent that he’s really something much deeper. He enforces rigid structure in his son’s life, for sure, but he’s also understanding and supportive of Troy. He’s tough, but never unreasonable. Mr. Billings, in fact, might be one of the best cinematic fathers to come down the pipe this year.

The movie jumps between laughs and disquieting drama with an unbelievable ease. The fact that a story about a kid who’s thinking about killing himself is at all funny without feeling cheap or distasteful is itself a minor miracle. It shifts between the real world and brief fantasies in Troy’s head with pitch-perfect timing, using them to great effect. The way the subdued Troy bounces with the exuberant, almost manic Marcus is delightful. The film uses this good humor to pull itself above wallowing in adolescent angst, and uses it as a channel for something genuinely uplifting. The only thing that rings false about the movie is in a climactic gesture that feels somewhat Hollywood-ish, although still comparatively low-key and realistic.

Fat Kid Rules the World will likely go overlooked for the most part this year, which is a shame. This is the kind of indie film that deserves to take off and get wider attention. There’s no telling how many lonely “fat kids” it could bring some hope to out there.