In recent years, we’ve seen more British filmmakers journeying across the pond to point their incisive camera lenses at the American experience. Bringing their distinctly homegrown approach offers an interesting outsider’s perspective to a country whose movies don’t always represent the real America (Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and Great Gerwig’s Lady Bird very much notwithstanding). Andrea Arnold’s restrained take on youthful malaise American Honey and Lynne Ramsey’s brutal, brilliantly twisted psych-thriller You Were Never Really Here are two examples of how UK sensibilities can result in gently subversive takes on US genre staples. This continues with the splendid boy and his beast tale Lean on Pete.
Andrew Haigh (45 Years, Weekend) is the latest Brit-born director to throw his hat into a ring that lies deep within the American heartland. Based on the novel of the same name by author and musician Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete centres around perennially shy Charley (Charlie Plummer), a teen living with his single father in the ever declining Pacific Northwest. Charley and his dad are just about getting by, living in a shotgun shack with not much of a gap between them and the poverty line. When jogging he stumbles into a prickly horse race trainer played by Steve Buscemi. He manages to land himself a job at a stable where he befriends the titular horse nearing the end of its’ career.
Story wise, this has all the hallmarks of cornball, family-friendly melodrama. In reality, it’s more Ken Loach’s Kes than Free Willy. Haigh is resolutely unsentimental in his approach. Hardships aren’t glossed over. They are explored and understood.
Lean on Pete especially excels when it comes to characterisation. Like Lady Bird, supporting players aren’t just props that orbit our protagonist but fully fleshed out human beings. Haigh insists on showing us people who have lived a life before entering the frame. Charley’s young dad, played with cocky charisma by Vikings alum Travis Fimmel, is a refreshing take on the deadbeat trope. Talking to his son candidly about sex and offering no stable maternal figure, he certainly cares for Charley. Yet he can only bring himself to be his child’s close friend as opposed to the person Charley needs him to be: his father.
Life has taken its toll on almost all involved. Buscemi’s grizzled trainer Del is one of his best dramatic turns in some time. Cheap and cantankerous, Del has the disgruntled demeaner of a man who has settled into a life he doesn’t want and blames the rest of the world for it. With only a rocky financial future to look forward to, he’s forced to overwork his race horses, running them into the ground and cheating to win races just to make ends meet. He’s not a good person. However, there’s always a glimmer of the younger man he once was earnestly pitying Charley’s situation.
The sweet natured Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) is another soon to be has-been. Once an aspiring jockey of Del’s – too lanky to sustain herself in the profession – she’s got nowhere in her sights. It’s hinted that she sells her body to keep doing the only thing she loves. Sevigny brings a weathered compassion to a woman at the end of her tether but pretending otherwise.
Without giving too much away, it eventually changes course and suddenly we have a road movie. After Del threatens to sell Lean on Pete to a Mexican owner, Charley knows this can only mean the horse will be sent to its’ demise at a slaughterhouse. Jumping ship, he steals Del’s car and trailer and embarks on a journey with his equine companion across the new American frontier. His odyssey is no life-affirming trip of self-discovery but rather a dangerous journey taken by a scared young man in search of direction and an aunt who may not want him.
Although Charley is warned not to get too attached to the horse by Bonnie, the animal ends up being his sole shoulder to cry on. It’s only when he’s alone with Lean on Pete, overnight at the stables or travestying on foot through the desert, does Charley open up and start to share in earnest. Amongst all the grim happenings, just seeing the kid smile is a respite in itself. On his travels he meets more cruel and colourful customers. Most notably the unpredictable transient Silver, played with erratic earthiness by Steve Zahn. Silver takes a homeless Charley in briefly but it’s not an experience that recalls the kindness of strangers.
Haigh is clearly not one to sugar-coat. When the misery starts to pile up, Charley’s plight can sometimes overbear, especially in an overstretched third act that tests patience with its almost relentless despair.
The Central Performance
But It’s Plummer’s performance that always grounds things and genuinely makes us fret for Charley’s wellbeing. As the young actor already proved as the kidnap victim John Paul Getty III in last year’s All the Money in the World, he is extremely adept at extracting depth from the vulnerable. Often emotionally closeted and sheepishly present the way so many troubled teens are, Charley displays a constant reticence that’s like a volcano of emotion always on the cusp of eruption. It’s Plummer’s superb skills that ensures the character’s anguish is registered even when the dialogue sets out to mask it.
The people that populate Lean on Pete, including Charley, rarely do the right thing. Yet, it’s not a depressing film. In fact, it’s just as uplifting as needs to be. It’s cynical about mankind’s ability to see the suffering in others, especially those they rear but it’s not a hopeless thesis. It’s last minute turnaround of empathy is painstakingly earned and a deft, tear-jerking catharsis that Charley (and the audience) deserves. Throughout the running time, Charley has three male mentors; his Dad, Del and Silver. All of which fail him. In Lean on Pete, men are let down by other men, and it’s the women who are left to pick up their pieces.