Lean on Pete Review
Adapted from Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel of the same name, Lean on Pete is a sombre coming of age tale, following a 15-year-old boy in his attempts to navigate the harsh realities of the American underclass.
Lean on Pete is the name of a horse owned by Del (Steve Buscemi), one of many he enters into dusty downbeat races in and around the Portland, Oregon region. Del’s love for the animals has long faded away and he has a reputation for running the horses into the ground before selling them on to be slaughtered.
He takes on the help of Charley (Charlie Plummer), a slim teenager who lives hand-to-mouth with his father Ray (Travis Fimmel). He’s a hard working kid who can see the mistakes his father has made in life and despite his loyalty dearly misses his estranged Aunt. Charley travels to various races with Del helping to prepare the horses and quickly strikes up an emotional bond with Pete, despite Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) – one of Del’s jockey’s – advising him not to get too close.
As is so often the case in films about children and their relationship with animals Pete represents a symbol of hope in Charley’s life, an outlet from the blunt truths that surround him everywhere he looks. This connection remains central to the story for most of the film although what director Andrew Haigh doesn’t do is give them enough initial time together for us to understand why Charley has become so fond of this particular horse.
Any contentment found in his new job is savagely taken from him when his father passes away after taking a severe beating from his girlfriend’s ex-husband. He then learns Pete is set to be sold on and rather than face up to another loss in his life Charley steals Pete and heads out to find his Aunt in Wyoming.
This social realist drama is in line with the style Haigh has established in his previous films 45 Years and Weekend. He finds a good match in cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck whose intimate style made Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking and A War so striking. Here he characterises Charley’s time in the city with a muted palette before expanding into the rich colours of the open landscape when he trudges through the heat of the desert.
A lot is asked of a young Charlie Plummer to carry the film for long periods and he does a good job of internalising the emotional suffering boiling underneath the surface. This includes scenes where Charley is completely isolated with Pete and left to mutter monologues to his four-legged friend that are less successful, but when paired with either Fimmel, Buscemi, Sevigny, or his brief scenes with Steve Zahn (who deserved more screen time), his character becomes more of a whole.
Haigh manages to subvert any early expectations that may raise their head in the first act, turning Charley (and Pete) onto a much tougher road than first anticipated. It isn’t always an easy watch and the two hours feel even heavier due to how bleak and hopeless the story becomes. For his first American picture Haigh paints a grim picture of those who have slipped out of the class system completely, suggesting it only takes a few bad turns to end up as one of society's forgotten.
Lean on Pete is not a film of easy choices, putting you firmly in the shoes of a young man whose quiet determination refuses to be broken. Credit should also be given to Haigh for eschewing moments ripe for emotional manipulation, choosing to stick to his established style in this at times haunting portrayal of adolescent loneliness.