Those who have recently been waxing eloquent over the dreamlike atmosphere of two overrated films–David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” and Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life”–should take a look at this picture to see how well it can be done. “Donnie Darko” is an audacious, astonishingly confident debut feature from writer-director Richard Kelly, an elusive but utterly absorbing mixture of black comedy, domestic drama, teen tale, mystical science-fiction, and psychological study that weaves together these apparently discordant elements into a remarkably fluent whole. Some loose and perplexing narrative strands remain at the end, to be sure, but they’re minor irritants compared with the ambition of the whole and the degree of success that Kelly achieves in realizing it. And while one could point to numerous references to earlier films–from high school satires like “Carrie” and “Heathers” to “Psycho”–“Darko” nonetheless is startlingly original in its overall effect. The result is, quite simply, one of the best American films of the year.

The title protagonist is a troubled high schooler living in an affluent Virginia suburb during the fall of 1988. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a brilliant kid, but he’s deeply disturbed: he has blackouts from which he awakes without any idea of where he’s been, and is periodically visited by a giant rabbit named Frank, which blithely informs him that the world is going to end in twenty-eight days. It’s hardly surprising that he’s seeing a shrink (Katharine Ross) and going through life fairly heavily medicated. His older sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) isn’t exactly sympathetic, but his parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne) are remarkably calm and caring under the circumstances–not your cliched mom and dad–and Donnie makes a very favorable impression on Gretchen (Jena Malone), a sweet new transfer student at his private school (who nonetheless has a problematical past). Campus life isn’t a bed of roses, though: there’s a bellicose bully to contend with, as well as an uptight, narrow-minded teacher who bases her instruction on the feel-good nostrums of shyster guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) while spending most of her time coaching a hot little dance group called Sparkle Motion that Donnie’s younger sister participates in. Meanwhile the teachers with whom Donnie can relate–progressive lit prof Karen (Drew Barrymore) and straight-arrow science instructor Monnitoff (Noah Wylie–are under pressure from a conservative administration and unable to respond fully to his queries. These involve his fascination with time travel–which Donnie comes to suspect may be playing a role in his peculiar experiences. Have we mentioned the airplane engine that crashes through the Darko family roof at the beginning of the story, or the odd, “Abyss”-like transparent protrusions that Donnie perceives emerging from people’s chests from time to time?

Kelly’s script is obviously rich in incidents, ideas and characters (others include an overweight Chinese student infatuated with Donnie and an aged, and apparently deranged, ex-nun who was once also intrigued with the idea of time-travel), and its habit of toying with time, adding new mysteries to those already jostling for attention, and perpetually surprising us with unexpected sidetracks will doubtlessly confuse and irritate viewers accustomed to more conventional, non-challenging fare. But though it’s virtually impossible for him to resolve everything to our full satisfaction, he exhibits such a wealth of imagination in making the effort that his film occasionally achieves a remarkable depth and beauty. And those willing to be carried along by it will have a fine time puzzling over it afterward. Is it a eerie portrait of the inner life of a psychotic? A weirdly evocative science-fiction fable? A satire of high-school troubled teen movies? Or is it a bit of all of these, and more besides?

What’s clear is that Kelly is anazingly expert not only in creating a gripping mood and posing intriguing questions, but that he’s a superb craftsman as well. The wide-screen lensing of “Donnie Darko” is simply gorgeous, capturing a succession of compositions so carefully gauged and realized that they’re sometimes breathtaking. The choice of music and found footage is also apt, capturing a period feel with an aptitude that would be the envy of far more experienced filmmakers working on much larger budgets. And he secures exceptional performances from much of his cast. Gyllenhaal makes amends for “Bubble Boy” with a beautifully nuanced turn in the lead, switching from easy-going charm to helplessness to vague menace very credibly, and Malone is far more personable than she is in the current “Life as a House.” McDonnell and Holmes are admirably restrained as Donnie’s parents, and if Swayze, Wylie and Barrymore aren’t quite their equal, Barrymore in particular gets extra points for serving as an executive producer, too.

There’s only one major problem, and it’s related not to the film’s quality but to its distribution. Newmarket, which enjoyed such enormous and unexpected success with “Memento” earlier this year, is surely making a mistake by tossing “Donne Darko” into multiplexes across the nation in one fell swoop and hoping to attract big opening-week business, as though the picture were a conventional high-school flick. But it doesn’t fall easily into that or any other ordinary category, and whatever audience it attracts in such venues will probably emerge frustrated by the its failure to meet their false expectations. The picture is really an art film, which would have been better served by a more specialized release pattern. It’s a haunting, deeply personal and wonderfully experimental collage of genres and themes, the work of a young man with both a keen eye and a working brain–a rare combination, unhappily, in contemporary cinema; and it definitely marks Richard Kelly as a filmmaker to watch. Even if his reach exceeds his grasp at times, his film will be mesmerizing for those who approach it without preconceptions and allow it to work its magic on them bit by bit.