Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature, Ratcatcher, is the kind of movie that will really sort out the sheep from the goats among its potential audience. It’s bleak — boy, is it bleak. It depicts people, particularly children, living in misery, poverty and profound psychological distress. It unfolds in the dark vale of late childhood, in a world that pukes arbitrary cruelty onto its semiguilty innocents and robs them of energy and vigor even before they leave life’s starting gate. The movie should be very depressing. It isn’t: It’s eerily beautiful. And if the 30-year-old Ramsay is not yet the world-class filmmaker she’s been heralded as, then Ratcatcher is a solid down payment on a career that offers limitless promise.

The movie takes place in the winter of 1978-79, on a grotesquely rundown Glasgow public-housing estate, a hellish place made worse by a garbage strike which has left mountains of uncollected, vermin-infested trash in the streets. The estate is gradually being emptied out by the city council in preparation for demolition. Its largely unemployed inhabitants are being shunted from the center of the city to new estates on the rural outskirts of town. Windows are boarded up, decay is rampant, and the empty apartments offer boundless opportunities for unsupervised youthful mayhem, vandalism, random viciousness and sexual experimentation.

James (non-actor William Eadie) is a ferrety-looking little boy of about 11 or 12. We first encounter him splashing around in a fetid local canal with his friend Ryan, whom he drowns — accidentally or on purpose, it’s hard to tell — by holding his head under water too long in a childish game. Throughout the movie James will be haunted by this moment, carrying a burden of guilt and remorse that he’s unable to express. Ramsay locates her point of view right inside James’ head, seeing what he sees, exactly as he sees it, with a kind of emotional camaraderie that enriches the entire movie. Her empathy for him and for the children and adults around him is astonishing, as is her ability (she’s a former photographer) to communicate feeling almost entirely through imagery.

Nothing much happens by way of plot, but Ramsay fills her frame with images whose beauty redeems the ugliness of her locale and the thwarted dreams of her beaten-down characters. James’ dad (Tommy Flanagan) is not actively cruel, but he’s usually half-pissed and emotionally elsewhere. His mother (Mandy Matthews) is a decent woman trapped in a world she can’t control. She tries to raise her children right, but is unable to keep tabs on them as they run wild in this collapsing realm of rats, rubbish and predatory teenage bullies.

All the characters have their feet planted in two different worlds. They live in a place that’s being torn down and dream of new homes that are still being built. James is caught in the shifting sands between childhood and adolescence. And the garbage strike isn’t merely a glib metaphor for a pestilent environment: It’s a feature of one of the hinge moments in recent British history, the national public employees’ strike of 1978 that became known as “The Winter of Discontent,” when public transport, trucking and garbage collection all came to a halt (in some places the dead even went unburied). It killed off the postwar political consensus and led directly to the election of Margaret Thatcher — a vicious class warrior — five months later. If the characters in Ratcatcher have it rough now, it’s nothing compared to what lies in their future.

James has two friends. Kenny (John Miller) is a sprightly, optimistic, naive little boy obsessed with animals, a magnet for bullies, while Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen) is a lovelorn teenage girl so lonely and unhappy that she lets local boys fuck her en masse in hopes that she may find some crumbs of intimacy and affection. When the rough boys harass James into joining in their exploitation of Margaret Anne, he simply lies on top of her, fully clothed. It’s a bewitching image — a pietà, almost — filled with intimations of happiness and warmth that are scarcely evident elsewhere in the film. When tiny James and rangy Margaret Anne take a bath together later, Ramsay creates an island of tenderness between them that makes everything that’s come before almost disappear. There’s nothing sexual about this moment — though the bluenoses will no doubt be up in arms about a nude scene between a 12-year-old and a ripe, promiscuous teenager — but with it, Ramsay restores to these orphans of the storm some measure of the innocence that is daily, hourly stolen from them by their environment.

This is the kind of thing at which Ramsay excels. Elsewhere there are extravagantly lovely images that linger in the memory for days: a wheat field shot through the window of one of the half-built new homes that the estate residents will soon move into, and a little fantasy sequence of what might happen to Kenny’s mouse after he ties its tail to a balloon and sends it “awa’ aff tae ra moon.” This random act of thoughtlessness is undercut when the mouse arrives on a lunar surface coated with thousands of other happy little white rodents.

If you’re expecting Ratcatcher to resemble other British movies that do well over here, forget it. The Full Monty it ain’t. It belongs squarely in a long tradition of British poetic realism that American audiences only occasionally glimpse, in movies such as Mike Leigh’s Naked and Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives. Nonetheless, this tradition, which stretches back as far as documentarians like Humphrey Jennings and Basil Wright, is where most truly ambitious British filmmaking has been practiced since the early ’60s. It’s a lineage that includes Ken Loach, Alan Clarke, Davies, Barney Platts-Mills, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, Ken McMullen, Bill Douglas, and others whose names are almost as obscure in their native land as they are here. These are some of the greatest filmmakers Britain has ever produced, and it speaks volumes for the state of the country’s movie culture that they have all been ignored and underfunded by mainstream critics and audiences.

Ramsay is clearly conversant with the work of these filmmakers: Ratcatcher is their direct descendent. It superficially resembles Loach’s second, and best, feature, Kes (made in 1969), the story of a boy doomed to a life in the coal mines who rescues and trains a kestrel. It also has a good deal in common (perhaps too much) with the late Douglas’ “Childhood Trilogy,” a grim autobiographical account of growing up in a harsh Scottish mining town in the 1940s. (Douglas’ Dreyeresque fingerprints, incidentally, are also all over Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves.) An equally important, perhaps unprocessed influence is Terrence Malick: The two shots mentioned above are both direct quotes from his films. The wheat-field-through-the-window shot is an expansion of a famous image from Days of Heaven, while the mouse-on-the-moon sequence is backed by the same Carl Orff music that’s been wildly overused since Malick overlaid Badlands’ treehouse sequence with it. One could also argue that Ramsay perhaps too freely endorses Malick’s insistence on the primacy of powerful images over narrative depth.

The flaws are minor. What matters is that Ramsay has made a movie in which a universe of hopelessness and decay is penetrated by shafts of light that remake these bleak surroundings in strange and beautiful ways. Ratcatcher is a harsh moviegoing experience. With its subtitled Glaswegian dialogue, its baroque realism and its gloom, one can predict a high walkout rate from the unadventurous and the narrow-minded. Hardier filmgoers will emerge from it with high hopes for whatever Ramsay makes next.

RATCATCHER | Written and directed by LYNNE RAMSAY | Produced by GAVIN EMERSON | Released by First Look Pictures | At Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Theater

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