Director: Andrew Haigh
Writer: Andrew Haigh
Starring: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny
Fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson (Plummer) finds a job caring for an aging race horse called Lean on Pete. When Charley learns that Lean on Pete is bound for slaughter, he takes the horse and the two of them embark on a trip across America in search of a home.
Stories that focus on the relationship between a child / young adult and an animal are often used in all forms of the arts to tug firmly on our heartstrings, but despite its plot sounding potentially like an excessively schmaltzy melodrama littered with lazy clichés, British auteur Andrew Haigh has produced a film that is filled with genuine emotional power by expertly avoiding these traps.
In his previous film, the exceptional 45 Years (which was one of my top films of 2015) Haigh skilfully gave us a truly engaging film without ever feeling the need for over-emphasis, proving that subtlety can be far more effective, and he very much keeps with this for Lean on Pete. It is a film that is not afraid to show us how tough and unforgiving life can be, but yet never feels the need to rely on cliched melodrama.
From the start of the narrative we are immediately thrown into Charley’s life; he gets home after a morning run through a desolate town to find a woman cooking breakfast in his house, to which she tells him that she had to buy the food as all that was in the fridge was beer and cereal. The beer is his dad’s (who we hear shouting from the bedroom) and Charley simply tells the woman that he keeps the cereal in the fridge to stop cockroaches from getting into the box. This sets the tone of the film; things are rather bleak for our young protagonist, but the film depicts it in a very matter-of-fact way that seems to intentionally replicate the stoic approach that Charley adopts to life.
As Charley, Charlie Plummer is exceptional; a boy of few words, but someone who is still inquisitive of the world around him, especially when he starts to work for Steve Buscemi’s tired and cynical horse trainer. Charley develops the inevitable bond with the ageing horse, the two of them both seemingly unwanted in this unforgiving and lonely world. When the two of them are trekking across the desert trying to escape from a place where no one seems to want them, we learn more about Charley’s life, as he opens up to the completely oblivious horse who is quite frankly just walking where he is being walked to, but Charley does tell some very moving anecdotes about his younger years. It feels like he is letting off some much-needed steam, as he is a very lonely figure that not up until now ever opened up to anyone about his life experiences and how it has affected him. As he sees an almost kindred spirit in Pete.
Lean on Pete is also a visually stunning film, with Haigh making sure that the lonely, desolate and decaying town that Charley lives is very much a character within the film. When Charley and Pete do embark on their journey, the landscape is beautiful, yet as desolate and unforgiving as life itself, with Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s wonderful cinematography further enhancing this.
At 2 hours, the film’s running time could have definitely been cut by a good twenty minutes, as the journey continues the film does start to unfortunately outstay its welcome, with some individual scenes that go on for too long and overall add very little to the film and the protagonist’s journey (both literally and emotionally). However, this does not stop there from being some very emotional moments, and an ending that feels appropriate and satisfying.
A raw and deeply powerful film featuring an exceptional leading performance; Lean on Pete is yet another film that confirms Andrew Haigh is a director to watch.