“Lean on Pete” surprised me with its considerable sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Here is a simple but heartfelt character drama which simply goes its own way as wisely avoiding clichés and conventions, and I was both entertained and touched by how it slowly but steadily builds up its narrative momentum as tenderly depicting its adolescent hero’s emotional journey.
Charlie Plummer, who recently played J. Paul Getty’s kidnapped grandson in “All the Money in the World” (2017) and is not related to another Plummer appearing in that movie, plays Charley Thompson, a meek 15-year-old boy who recently moved to Portland, Oregon along with his single father Ray (Travis Fimmel). While their new house is still in disarray, Ray is frequently absent due to whatever he does outside, but Charley does not mind that much because he knows that his father cares about him much despite his flaws, and he often spends his ongoing summer days on doing exercise outside as hoping to play football in his new high school during the next semester.
On one day, Charley comes across a middle-aged guy named Del (Steve Buscemi), who has a trouble with his truck while taking two of his racehorses to a nearby stable. After Charley helps him fix his truck, Del offers him a job, and Charley instantly accepts the offer because that means extra money for him and his father.
While working for Del day by day, Charley gradually learns how to handle horses, and then he finds himself particularly attached to one of the horses in Del’s possession. It is an aging racehorse named Lean on Pete, and how Charley gets closer to this horse bit by bit is one of nice subtle touches in the movie. Although there is not any ‘big’ moment between the horse and Charley, the movie subtly conveys to us Charley’s growing affection toward the horse through small moments such as when he gently looks at it for a while, and we come to sense that it becomes another important thing in his lonely life besides his father.
Of course, there soon comes a harsh moment of reality through Del, who may understand well Charley’s emotional attachment to Lean on Pete but is also a hardened businessman who is always ready to do whatever he should do for making ends meet. When one of his horses becomes useless at one point, Del does not hesitate at all to send it to Mexico for a heartless reason, and we guess that it is probably one of many unsavory things he has done for keeping his diminishing business afloat. As Del’s frequent jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) knows that too well, and she phlegmatically reminds Charley that he should not get emotionally involved too much with the horses under his care.
Meanwhile, the situation becomes more complicated for Charley due to a sudden narrative turn I will not reveal here. All I can tell you is that 1) Lean on Pete becomes more important for Charley after this happening and 2) that prompts Charley to make a rather unwise impromptu decision on Lean on Pete shortly after what turns out to be its last race.
Even after that plot turn, the movie sticks to its leisurely narrative pacing, and the adapted screenplay by director Andrew Haigh, which is based on Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name, gives a series of nice human moments while never resorting to cheap sentimentality. I like a part involved with Charley’s accidental encounter with two guys living alone in a remote ranch, and I appreciate the following small moment between Charley and a female character who wearily reveals to him her despair and resignation. Even when it is around its expected arrival point, the movie continues to take its time as before, and that is the main reason why its last scene is emotionally resonant.
As shown from his previous works “Weekend” (2011) and “45 Years” (2015), Haigh is a good filmmaker who has shown considerable strength in intimate character drama, and that aspect of his is evident in “Lean on Pete”. He and his cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck effectively establish realistic mood and background for his story and characters, and we are instantly immersed into our young hero’s situation. As the story later rolls into a wider territory, Jønck vividly captures wide, beautiful landscapes on his camera, and that further enhances the quiet but palpable emotional intensity during the second half of the story.
The movie demands a lot from Plummer especially during its second half, and he is quite good in his nuanced low-key performance which received the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice International Film Festival in last year. Considering what he demonstrated in this film and “All the Money in the World”, Plummer is surely an interesting new actor to watch, and I hope that he will soon move onto bigger things to come.
Haigh assembles several notable performers around Plummer. While Travis Fimmel, who previously drew my attention via his small role in “Maggie’s Plan” (2015), brings considerable humanity to his flawed character, Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny show us again why they are two of the most dependable performers in American independent movie industry, and Steven Zhan, who has shown more of his serious side during recent years, is also effective in his supporting role.
On the whole, “Lean on Pete” is another commendable work from Haigh, who drew my attention with the sensitive gay romance of “Weekend” and then struck me hard with the sobering marital drama of “45 Years”. With the significant achievement in “Lean on Pete”, he confirms again that he is one of the prominent British filmmakers during this decade, and I think I can have some expectation whenever his new work comes out.