Lean on Pete
Rising talent Charlie Plummer shines in this moving tale of a boy and his horse's cross country adventure, from talented British director Andrew Haigh
Andrew Haigh’s three films so far – Greek Pete, a pseudo-documentary on the life of a rent boy; tender romance Weekend; and heartbreaking marriage in crisis drama 45 Years – have traded in a cinema of delicate grace notes that imperceptibly build to devastating effect. Haigh’s first American picture, Lean on Pete, a beautifully detailed coming-of-age film, follows this formula. Despite the increased budget and scope, Haigh’s artistry remains low-key and deeply intimate.
Lean on Pete's title character is a gone-to-seed racehorse, but our two legged protagonist, Charley (Charlie Plummer, whose laid-back performance is knockout), is also a runner. The film opens with the quiet, thoughtful 15-year-old on a dawn jog, and it’s a good thing too as the boy will need his stamina later in the movie. When he arrives back home he finds a pleasant surprise on the kitchen table: breakfast, courtesy of his father’s latest girlfriend, who’s spent the night.
These early scenes are Haigh in his element, finely sketching Charley’s erratic homelife with his irresponsible but loving deadbeat dad (former pants model Travis Fimmel, who's unrecognisable underneath a beer gut and lots of unkempt hair). In a handful of exchanges between father and son, the actors’ body language and gestures say as much as Haigh’s naturalistic dialogue.
Charley finds a second father figure of sorts in Steve Buscemi’s cantankerous horse trainer Del (the character is aptly introduced screaming the line “you motherfucking cocksucking fuck”), but in truth the boy is more enamoured with Del’s overworked racehorse Lean on Pete, who’s a few bad races away from a Mexican slaughterhouse. Charley clearly feels an affinity: he too is one or two moments of misfortune away from misery. “There are only so many times you can fall down, right?” says Chloë Sevigny’s worldweary Bonnie, Del’s prefered jockey. Both Charley and Pete are about to find this out the hard way when they take to the open-road on an ill-advised cross-country adventure.
You might expect a road movie following a boy and his trusty horse to canter towards the sentimental, but Haigh resists at every turn. There’s nothing romantic about siphoning off petrol, running out on a bill at a diner or schlepping across rocky desert; Charley’s impromptu adventure is no Into the Wild-style journey of self-discovery. A better comparison is Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, another animal-human buddy movie about emotional distress and economic desperation, where each dollar counts.
However, like Reichardt, Haigh isn’t making some miserablist downer. The milk of human kindness lurks around every corner in Lean on Pete, and specifically from workers of a particularly underappreciated profession. “The best women have all been waitresses at some point,” suggest Charley’s father early in the film, and if the benevolent servers of the diners the young lad ends up it are anything to go by, he’s on to something. As well as being an emotionally astute study in resilience, Haigh also offers a resounding message: leave a good tip the next time you eat out.
Lean on Pete screens at London Film Festival 5 & 6 Oct, and is released by Curzon Artificial Eye 4 May