Andrew Haigh's heartbreaking, poignant drama is a testament to our deeply human desire to belong, told through a nuanced performance by Charlie Plummer.
If you were to be told that one of the most heartfelt, poignant films of the year was – at its core – a story about a boy and his horse, you might be forgiven some skepticism. After all, it’s a well-worn trope that hearkens all the way back to C.S. Lewis and beyond – that fundamental, spiritual connection between man and animal often used as fodder for average coming-of-age stories. Luckily, Lean on Pete is hardly one of those average stories – in the hands of Andrew Haigh (one of the most intriguing American independent filmmakers today), the results are gut-wrenchingly affecting and downright powerful.
Here, the director of Weekend and 45 Years adapts the titular novel by author (and Richmond Fontaine frontman) Willy Vlautin into an intimate, poetry-laden character study of young Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer, All the Money in the World) – a broken young boy living in abject poverty with his brusque father (Travis Fimmel, Warcraft) in the poorer parts of Portland, Oregon. With no mother, no money and no direction, Charley spends his time jogging and looking after his dad, his experiences turning him into a sensitive, withdrawn naif.
Eventually, he finds money (and purpose) looking after race horses owned by craggy pragmatist Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi) and raced by jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny). One horse in particular catches his eye – Lean on Pete, an older race horse who’s past his prime and set to be sold to Mexico. After an incident with his father leaves him with no one to turn to, he turns to the surrogate family of Bonnie and Del (and Pete) to give him a sense of belonging.
That’s only half of Lean on Pete’s ponderous, patient story, but its inevitable, tragic pitfalls deserve to be saved for the viewer’s first experience. What can be said, though, about Haigh’s beautiful tale is that it’s just about as sensitive as young Charley is. Plummer gives a lovely, unexpected performance, speaking volumes using nothing but withdrawn glances and shy smiles. His unassuming, lanky physicality and steely eyes evince a boy who’s experienced far too much trauma in his life, an adolescence of poverty forcing him to think and do things he (and the audience) never expected to do. Charley’s decisions land him in a whole lot of trouble, and a crash course in losing his innocence, but each one makes sense and feels organic.
For a good chunk of the film, Plummer’s only scene partner is Pete – two literally and figuratively broken beings, searching for a home that will welcome them. By the time the picture becomes a road film, with Charley and Pete roaming the countryside experiencing snippets of other people’s family life, Haigh frames them as kindred spirits, healing each other’s wounds in unexpected ways as they amble through cinematographer Magnus Joenck’s azure sunsets and amber desert plains. The only sound in these scenes is Charley’s unassuming stories of childhood that he tells to Pete; one gets the impression Pete’s actually listening.
While the subject matter is usually at home in a harmless kid’s film, Haigh doesn’t pull punches with the cruelty and suffering that Charley and Pete experience through their adventures in Lean on Pete. Their journey starts with a crime, and the audience sees many more instances of theft, violence and misery before the film’s two hours are done. Even poor Charley is forced to do terrible, terrible things to survive, each new potential home upended by abuse, betrayal or something as simple as not having a good feeling. “That’s not our home,” Charley says to Pete after leaving one of their most hospitable stops; Haigh perfectly captures the intangibility of that feeling of ‘home’ they’re looking for.
Throughout, Haigh infuses the film with the frustration that Charley feels at the perpetual disappointments of the adult world. Parental and authority figures continually tell him “it’ll be all right,” only for Charley to find out the hard way that it’s not – his father says it when telling him about his affair with a married woman; the doctor says it when his father’s in the hospital after an encounter with her husband. Even Del says it about Pete’s age and leg infirmity, even as he plans to get rid of him. The movie is a litany of reminders that the world of grownups is frightening, dangerous and deceptive – too cruel a world for such an innocent boy.
At times, Lean on Pete threatens to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of lower-class American poverty, specifically the white variety. However, Haigh shows enough of his signature restraint to keep the film from veering into generalizations about rednecks and Middle-America conservatism. In every moment, the focus remains on Charley’s airy, dreamlike quest to belong – whether that’s with his friend Pete, in a soup kitchen, or elsewhere. Lean on Pete is a devastating, but enriching, study of the ways the world tests our innocence, and the very understandable desire to hold onto it, hoping that somewhere – in the next town, at the next stop – home is just around the corner.
Lean on Pete opens in Chicago on April 13th at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and the CineArts 6 Evanston.