“Haunting” is one of those go-to critical terms – handily covering all manner of atmospheric tangibles in one poster-friendly epithet – that I nonetheless avoid using whenever possible, particularly when reviewing films I’ve just seen. How can a film be declared “haunting” before it’s had time to haunt a person? To immediately provoke or upset is one thing; to haunt is to play a far longer game.

Which is to say that it’s not without due consideration that I describe Israeli-American video artist Alma Har’el debut feature “Bombay Beach,” a gloriously freeform documentary following a scattering of defiantly damaged souls around California’s Salton Sea, as, well, haunting.

It’s been over four months since I first saw Har’el’s bracing, taffeta-textured film, currently on release in New York and Los Angeles, and still I find isolated sounds and images from its rich scrapbook straying, of their own accord, into my memory: two teenagers staring impassively into the middle distance in dime-store carnival masks, a crew-cut tyke in a leotard rowing a beached boat to nowhere, the rosy-bleak shadows of the sunset on this none-more-desolate settlement.

Insistent though they are in my head, describing such individual snapshots doesn’t really do justice to the whole: it casts “Bombay Beach” as a shabby-chic coffee-table photo essay, a perception some will hang on Har’el’s own proficient background as a photographer and music-video director, when the film is, in its own warm-breeze manner, something far more penetrating and eccentric than that. It’s comparatively easy to gild the suffering of working-class misfits in this accidental American desert with Serious vérité technique, and it’d make for an eminently worthy film. A harder and more compelling task, however, is to coax out the joy in this compromised community – and that, with a mixture of human perceptiveness, resourceful intervention and a killer ear for music, is the road Har’el has taken.

Though her spry camera bobs and weaves around enough surrounding figures to qualify the film as a wider population portrait, Har’el structures her film at its base as a kind of revolving tri-character study, singling out three of the area’s generous living album of storied faces, all at different stages of long-term trouble, for particular scrutiny. The youngest is Benny, a sparky, hyperactive seven-year-old already on a bewildering cocktail of behavior-modifying drugs; the oldest is Red, a grizzled trailer-park geezer whose all-American lone-wolf image doesn’t much romanticize his grotesque bigotry. In between is CJ, a black teenage refugee from the L.A. ganglands whose dreams of a football scholarship mark him out as the film’s totem of hope.

So far, so bleak, but for all the despair (and occasional stabs of justified anger) the film conjures over these casualties of the interrupted American Dream, it rarely feels oppressive: partly because the Salton Sea itself, that bleached-out inland coast created a century ago by burst canal gates, is a location so mystically eerie it lends even the most mundane domestic action a gauze of magical realism, and partly because Har’el is more concerned with the emotional survival of her subjects than merely their hard-scrabble existence. Benny’s family may be broken-down in many practical ways, but it doesn’t want for connective tissue; Red may be a miserable old coot, but he’s made his peace with that long ago with surprisingly good humor.

Har’el’s filmmaking is disinclined to judge. Audaciously, however, it has fewer reservations about interacting: in its riskiest gambit, “Bombay Beach” blurs the line between documentary and performance art in rapturously choreographed scenes where townsfolk dance in the streets, with the film’s handpicked playlist including fresh tracks from Bob Dylan, as well as Beirut frontman Zach Condon (for whom Har’el has previously directed videos). This stylized segue into musical territory has displeased certain documentary purists, but there’s a spiritual authenticity, not to mention a collaborative spirit, to such sequences that make them a loyal counterpart to the film’s realities. “A doc can dance,” runs the slogan to the hardworking “Bombay Beach” Twitter feed; in this strange, moral and very special study of outcast America, behavior is defined by how we break it.