Lean on Pete is a story about a hapless boy on the road with his bunged-up horse. Based on a book by local author Willy Vlautin, it's also a piece of neorealism devoted to the other Portland—the day laborers and pickup-truck pluggers who got left behind—shot in the industrial fringes girding the Columbia Slough near Portland Meadows.

British director Andrew Haigh fills vast and desolate American expanses with the unlucky and the hardscrabble. The film's protagonist, 15-year-old Charley Thompson, is played by actual teenager Charlie Plummer with heartbreaking eagerness and mute, wounded sadness. Orphaned by a party mom and a reckless if charismatic dad, Charley becomes obsessed with saving the only thing more helpless than himself: a broken-down racehorse named Lean on Pete, whose alcoholic trainer is played by Steve Buscemi.

Charley is, of course, in no position to save anything, including himself. The horse is just the only thing between Charley and the abyss. The sense of both transcendent beauty and crushing futility is so all-encompassing that it accidentally infected my own life: Before I remembered I was merely watching a film, I earnestly worried I was doomed.

Critic's rating: 3/4 stars.

Lean on Pete is R and opens Friday, April 13 at Living Room.