Lean on Pete, 2018.
Written and Directed by Andrew Haigh
Starring Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Buscemi, Steve Zahn, Thomas Mann, Amy Seimetz, Lewis Pullman, and Alison Elliott
A teenager gets a summer job working for a horse trainer and befriends the fading racehorse, Lean on Pete.
Structurally, Lean on Pete will go down as one of the most unpredictable features of the year, meaning plot details will be left more vague than usual in this glowing review. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin from 45 Years writer and director Andrew Haigh, the story about a boy and his best friend horse places the titular equine as the co-lead major character to be expected, but also subverts narrative thought processes in order to express that this is ultimately Charley’s harshly depicted coming-of-age story. Played by Charlie Plummer who turns in a revelatory performance that may not get him as much exposure as his work on the recently released more mainstream All the Money in the World, this is still his best work to date, as he wanders through life looking for any loving parental figure and some form of acceptance.
During early moments of the first act we learn that Charley never knew his own mother (apparently, she left his father before birth and was a substance abusing mess), his father, while not the worst father of the year, is an alcoholic fixated on sleeping around at the cost of ruining other couple’s relationships (the backwoods trucker hat he sports along with his dirty clothing makes him come across as Kenny’s dad from South Park), and that he has an Aunt he has lost contact with due to bickering escalated by his father. Of course, living an impoverished lifestyle does not exactly raise one’s self-esteem, so the 15-year-old boy (one of the film’s saddest elements is watching him lie about his age as the situation sees fit to obtain more work, slightly offset by bosses complementing his hard work for someone so young) is relieved and happy when he comes across Del (Steve Buscemi, who’s standard comedic backtalking routine is put to thematic effect by presenting him as a cynical, broken down man who considers a good day to simply be one where he ends up with more money than he began) and his truck broken down on the road. The two hit it off and the boy finds decent work helping Del care for the tired, run-down racehorses and preparing them for events (presented with striking authenticity).
Now, this is probably where viewers will think they have Lean on Pete figured out, assuming that Del will slowly regain his optimism and develop into a caring surrogate father for Charley, and that at some point, he will give in to the pleading to not send the injured horse he has established emotional fondness for, Lean on Pete (falling in line with traditional silly race-horse monikers, that is his full name, and obviously one that fits into the context of the narrative), off to the slaughterhouse in Mexico. “Don’t get attached to him, he’s just a horse and not a pet” Del and his longtime horse jockey companion Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny delivering a strong performance as a byproduct of Del’s pessimism) attempt drilling into Charley’s mind, except he refuses to fall in line. Pete is more than an animal to be used for antiquated and inhumane sports in the eyes of Charley (and by extension thanks to powerful execution, the audience’s eyes); he’s a legitimate friend and the only one the boy has in the isolated, rinky-dink town he resides in.
One of the most difficult requests a director can give an actor is to communicate with a non-human, and there are many such scenes here where Charley spills out his thoughts, his pain, and reminisces on the few joyous moments in his life to Pete with sincerity and believability. Without a connection between the two this affecting, Lean on Pete would be a failure; even the unexpected lengthy portion of the film where Pete is absent works as intended, not just because his presence is sorely missed but also due to the fact that we know what Charley is like with and without Pete. It’s like ripping away the last close relative someone has. Also, keep in mind that I am not necessarily saying Pete dies, just that you have to understand that the script is unpredictable and uses that to its advantage as a character study.
There is also a reoccurring theme of people often, and unfortunately, being stripped of their self-worth and ambitions. As the story travels across rural America (exquisitely captured by beautiful panoramic views of various landscapes by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (A War) the characters come across victims of both mental and physical abuse with the uniting thread being that it is the result of one person projecting their own life frustrations and insecurities onto, typically much younger people, with all of the hostility being unwarranted and unnecessary. At least three minor players come to mind that I genuinely felt sad for despite their limited screen time and overall minimal impact on the plot, which is another testament to the strength of Andrew Haigh’s writing and direction. Honestly, Lean on Pete triumphantly pulls off the challenging obstacle of condensing a novel into two hours without feeling as if important details of its numerous characters and themes were left in the editing room. Every scene feels important to the plethora of connecting throughlines.
Additionally, Lean on Pete offers up depressing glimpses of homeless life; it would make a great companion piece to last year’s The Florida Project which was also distributed by A24. Again, Lean on Pete is as much a film about a boy clawing his way out of destitution, running and running to find a place to call home surrounded by actual parental figures as it is about a horse affecting someone’s life, but Pete is paramount to all of this and more in both familiar and unexpected ways. The only minor quibbles to be found with the film is the unlikely difficulty of tracking down a random woman and the exaggerated ineptitude of police officers all across America. It’s also a fair argument to state that, although it is necessary to remove Pete from Charley the film loses its selling point, but most will probably appreciate the creative decision.
Authentic, gorgeously photographed, and equipped with the ability to make anyone cry, Lean on Pete is a worthy adaptation of the source material and an intimate portrait of America’s underclass. The one constant is that there are just as many people in the world trying to lighten the burden of others as there are those hopelessly feeling the need to drag others down into the ditches alongside them. Lean on Pete ends with a scene nearly identical to its opening with one important distinction; the running eventually stops, but the persistence to keep fighting in order to reach greener pastures takes iron will.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com