Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Andrew Haigh
Stars: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Amy Seimetz, Lewis Pullman, Steve Zahn, Alison Elliott, Bob Olin.
Lean On Pete is a gritty coming of age story about a boy and his love for a horse, but it is a far cry from the more family friendly films like Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, etc.
Fifteen-year old Charley Thompson (played by Charlie Plummer, who played Christopher Plummer’s kidnapped grandson in the drama All The Money In The World) is an itinerant teen who is travelling around Oregon with his father (Travis Fimmel, from tv series Vikings, etc) who is looking for work. As a child Charley was abandoned by his drug addicted mother and has basically followed his alcoholic and womanising father around as he travels from city to city. But when his father is badly beaten by a jealous husband, Charley has to find work to support himself. He lands a job working in a seedy, rundown stable run by the cynical washed up trainer Del (Steve Buscemi). Charley forms an attachment with an aging race horse named Lean On Pete.
When Charley’s father dies in hospital, his world begins to crumble. Then he learns that the horse is about to be shipped off to a knackery in Mexico to be slaughtered, and he takes matters into his own hand. He makes off with the horse and embarks on a journey to find his estranged aunt Margy, whom he hasn’t seen in years.
Lean On Pete follows Charley’s cross-country odyssey as he attempts to negotiate an unfriendly and depressing landscape of contemporary America, with its damaged Iraqi war veterans and homeless. Along the way he has encounters with colourful characters, some of whom are helpful, and some adventures that lead him into sometimes dangerous territory. He experiences loneliness, despair, violence and the harsher realities of life.
Lean On Pete is an intimate character study that has been adapted from the 2010 novel written by Willy Vlautin and is tinged with a palpable sense of sadness. The film is sentimental, heart wrenching and occasionally confronting, and it doesn’t always follow a predictable path. This is the fourth feature for British director Andrew Haigh (the gay romance Weekend and 45 Years), and he brings an unsympathetic perspective to this view of life in contemporary America. He maintains a low-key approach to the drama and he steeps the material with a sense of authenticity. AS with his previous films, Haigh also brings an emotional intensity to the material. There is a real sense of intimacy in the relationship that develops between Charley and the horse as he shares his thoughts and confused emotions with Lean On Pete.
Haigh elicits great performances from his cast. In particular, Plummer, who is on screen for the whole film, delivers a committed and natural performance that captures his damaged character’s vulnerability, uncertainty and desperate need to find a connection in this often-cruel world. The story resonated with him personally and he delivers a subtle performance that is easily the best of his career to date. Good support comes from Buscemi, who is perfectly suited to the role of the cynical and corrupt Del. Steve Zahn is cast against type as an alcoholic vagrant, while indie film favourite Chloe Sevigny registers strongly as Bonnie, the horse’s jockey. Fimmel makes the most of his small but important role.
Set largely in Oregon, this is a low budget feature that boasts modest production values, but it still looks gorgeous on the big screen. The film captures the wide-open landscapes and harsh vistas which are beautifully shot by the widescreen lensing of Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (A Hijacking, etc).