Lean on Pete **** / *****
Directed by: Andrew Haigh.
Written by: Andrew Haigh based on the novel by Willy Vlautin.
Starring: Charlie Plummer (Charley Thompson), Travis Fimmel (Ray), Chloë Sevigny (Bonnie), Steve Buscemi (Del), Steve Zahn (Silver), Amy Seimetz (Lynn), Justin Rain (Mike), Lewis Pullman (Dallas), Frank Gallegos (Santiago), Julia Prud'homme (Ruby), Alison Elliott (Margy), Rachael Perrell Fosket (Martha), Jason Rouse (Mitch), Francisco Diego Garcia (Bob), Bob Olin (Mr. Kendall), Teyah Hartley (Laurie),
I’m not quite sure why it seems like European filmmakers seem more interested in America’s wide open spaces than American directors are – but often when I think of those long stretching roads, and vast emptiness, it’s films like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas or Andrea Arnold’s American Honey that come to mind. American films seems mainly interested in either big cities, the suburbs or small towns – but not everything in between. You can add Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete to those other European films that contemplates that American vastness. It is, on the surface, a story of a boy and a horse – but the film has such a lived in feel that even the smallest characters feel full – that they are leading lives outside the frame, and we are just stopping in.
The film’s star is Charlie Plummer – you may remember him from All the Money in the World last year, although he’s much better here. He plays Charley, a 16 year old kid who has moved around the country with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), who moves from one dead end job to the next, one girlfriend to the next. He has no other real family – there’s an Aunt Margy, but she and her father got into a fight a few years ago, and haven’t spoken since. They’re now in Portland, living in a mobile home park, and Charley is left to his own devices a lot. He runs every morning – he wants to play football, like he did at his old school, but he basically knows no one in this new place. He meets Del (Steve Buscemi), a down-on-his-luck, crotchety horse trainer. Charley also meets all of Del’s horses – and grows particularly fond of Lean on Pete – a five-year-old quarter horse, approaching the end of his time as a race horse. Things don’t end well for race horses.
I won’t give away the sad sequence of events that transpire during the first half of Lean on Pete – but will note that the film turns into a road movie of sorts in its second half. Writer/director Andrew Haigh has a gift of making all the characters in this film feel real – like fully formed people the audience is just spending some time with, before they go back to their lives. This makes the episodic nature of Lean on Pete work better than it usually does in this type of film. Whether it’s Travis Fimmel as Charley’s father – who loves his son, but doesn’t really know how to raise him, or Steve Buscemi as Del, a kind of gruff, surrogate father figure who Charley idolizes than grows disillusioned with, Chloe Sevigny as a jockey – who cares for Charley, but is also a realist, the first half of the film allows each of them some time and space for the audience to get to know them. This is more difficult with characters with less screen time – but Haigh and his actors still manage to do it. There is something about the way Amy Seimetz makes breakfast for and interacts with Charley and his father that tells you everything about this woman. Or the couple of Iraq veterans who invite Charley into their house at a certain point – and later, the older man who arrives to hang out with them, with his overweight granddaughter, who he treats cruelly. Or Steve Zahn, who seems so nice as a homeless person at first. All of them are real people, which makes these little interludes along the way ring true.
They all also help Plummer and his performance. Unless Plummer is alone with Lean on Pete, the horse, he remains a fairly quiet presence – respectful and nice, deferring to those around him. As he talks to Pete the horse – and later, a figure from his past – we get to know more about Charley that made him the way he is. His dreams are not big dreams – he has just grown use to grown up either abandoning him or letting him down. There is something almost unspeakably sad about it when he describes to Pete the greatest thing he’s ever seen – and it’s simply a family sitting down to a meal together. The small moments the rest of us take for granted, are all he really wants. When he seems on the verge of getting it, near the end, he distrusts it. He’s been thrust into a crueler world than he should have to face at 16.
When you hear a movie is about a boy and his horse, you are probably thinking of something perhaps a little cheesy, but inspirational. Lean on Pete really isn’t that film – it’s more akin to something like Kelly Reichardt’s best film Wendy & Lucy, in which Michelle Williams plays a woman with no money, stranded with her dog who has to find a way to move on to the next town, for another job. It’s a portrait of poverty that is heartbreaking, because so little money could mean so much to the characters. Lean on Pete gets, I think both darker and more violent than Wendy & Lucy – this is not going to end the way you think it will. It confirms Haigh – whose last film was the brilliant 45 Years, about a woman who realizes late in life that she doesn’t understand anything about her life, or her marriage, as one of the most keenly observant filmmakers around. He sets his sights this time on America – and what he finds is tragic and sad, but offers some hope of uplift.