Behavior, the 2014 movie from Cuban writer and director Ernesto Daranas that is still playing festival circuits in the U.S., is not one-of-a-kind. It is not unprecedented; it does not break (much) new ground. What it is, is an exceptionally heartfelt, moving, and artistically accomplished example of its genre. As Brooklyn is what an Irish-American romance should aspire to be, so Behavior is the “coming of age in the underclass” story at its most luminous.

Behavior tells two intertwined stories: 12-year-old Chala (Armando Valdés Freire) woos brassy classmate Yeni (Amaly Junco) and keeps getting into trouble at school; his increasingly-embattled, aging teacher Carmela (Alina Rodriguez) struggles to keep him out of a “re-education school.” Chala starts his schooldays cleaning up after his addicted mother (Yuliet Cruz), catching pigeons to sell, and then feeding the fighting dogs owned by the man who might be his father (Armando Miguel Gómez), all before he grabs his bookbag and heads to class.

The camera lingers on the rubble and the rust. You can smell the blood in the air at the dog ring. You can smell the sweat, as the air shimmers with heat. The colors are golden, battered off-white, deep brown and black tones, with splashes of red: the flowers in girls’ hair, the pioneer scarves on the schoolchildren, the blood.

This is a perfectly-paced movie. Intense emotional scenes cut to meditative or casual ones in unexpected ways—the most striking example is when Chala spies on his mother having sex, and then immediately we see Yeni and her friends practicing flamenco steps in an abandoned train car.

Daranas has rounded up a stellar cast. Freire as Chala is cheeky, tough, an S.E. Hinton character in an even harder time and place. Junco is exactly as cheeky, exactly as tough, with her underbite and her long, wavy pigtails and her grit. Rodriguez shows us in her face and her tired body a woman carved by decades of hard, loving effort—half the adults in the film were once her students. Both Chala and Yeni have little packs of friends who follow them around, terrific comedy choruses. Cruz as Chala’s mom is hunchy and zombified, which, in this movie, didn’t read as cliched. It’s how she is. Even Gómez sells his character as a hard man who isn’t quite as ruthless as he wants to appear. You can hear in these descriptions how easy it would be for the characters to become sentimentalized. It’s to Daranas’s credit that instead they come across as the real things sentiment feeds on.

This is a hard, sad movie about children whose every halting step forward requires heroic effort. The romance between Chala and Yeni is threatened by Chala’s work at the dog ring (the way Yeni handles this shows the children’s ages so perfectly) and by the police who want to force Yeni and her father out of Havana, back to their home province.

Behavior is a heroic-teacher movie, and like most heroic-teacher movies it is a depiction of governmental institutions which promise to serve the poorest citizens and instead abandon or oppress them. The film’s most obvious contrast between the ideal Cuba and the reality—and its most unusual plot element—comes when Yeni places a holy card of Our Lady of Charity on the classroom bulletin board.

This holy card becomes a key piece of evidence in the push to get Carmela booted from her job. It’s a complex symbol—the script goes out of its way to show lapsed and non-Catholics fighting for the card to stay, and religious faith per se is barely touched on. This is a movie about complicity: Carmela will draw on every possible friend she has, whether that’s a dogfighter or a saint she doesn’t quite believe in. But in this film Christian faith is a force sustaining the poorest. This is the faith of grandmothers and hungry children. Carmela is on their side—God can pick whatever side He likes. And the film, by putting us in Carmela’s perspective, avoids any hint of easy answers or propaganda.

It turns out that even in a Communist country religion is still the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.