Andrew Haigh, 2018, UK
An excellently performed little heart-breaker, directed by Andrew Haigh with restraint and the deliberate tempo of barely stifled tragedy. The title and premise – a boy and his horse – probably conjure something more fluffy and more obviously manipulative, but ‘Lean on Pete’ has more in common with the subdued tone of its young star Charlie Plummer’s debut film, ‘King Jack’.
Plummer proves to be one of what must be the most naturalistic and convincing teenagers in cinema and can carry an entire film effortlessly. As a character, Charley is mild, resourceful, vulnerable and capable in equal measure with the determination to just keep going on his own terms: this isn’t rebellion or defiance; it’s just what he knows. He comes from a negligible and unstable but not uncaring home-life with his dad (Travis Fimmel) and falls into work with the irascible Steve Buscemi who races horses into the ground for a meagre living. Charley is looking for something to call his own and soon takes to the horses, especially one called Lean on Pete who becomes his confidante as things get tough. And yet, this otherwise admirable independence alludes to the neglect and displacement that Charley has subsumed into his character: his indifference to authority isn’t a sign of insurgence but rather his inability to see and accept more official forms of assistance because he doesn’t feel a part of a more mainstream culture.
All the characters appear to have reached points of acceptance of their lot; this is not a world of aspiration. Charley’s dad is more a best buddy than a father, getting by on what remains of his shit-eating good-ol’-boy charm to win women as he forgoes stability. Buscemi is a master of projecting a twitching humanity suffocated by disappointment and self-loathing but even his Del seems to be trying to find a way to be empathic to the boy despite himself. Chloë Sevigny is the obvious port-of-call for sympathy but even she is broken by the knocks she has taken and callously repeats that you can’t treat horses like pets: “…they’re just horses”, she repeats like a mantra trying to convince herself. Later, Charley falls in with a couple of jocks who just want to play games, drink and sleep. They barely seem to care when he joins them. Elsewhere, dramas of abusive relationships play out across assumptions of what gender roles should be. It feels like a dead-end environment where empathy rears up regardless of the cruelty and apathy it’s up against. In that way, it captures the tone of drama lived rather than always announcing itself.
It’s a film that never quite does what you might expect. It’s not that Charley is always badly treated, but he just wants to do things his own way and walks away from official help multiple times. You get the impression that most people he leaves behind really would want to know he’s okay. He gets by on charity, pity, luck and just plain kindness. And when it calls for it, the strength to hit back: don’t mess with a downtrodden and determined teen with nothing to lose. It’s what Common Sense Media calls a “traumatically beautiful drama”, which may seem a somewhat clumsy description but is indicative of the contrasting forces always at work visually and dramatically.
Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s cinematography presents bright and clear vistas of the Pacific Midwest, through which Charley marches on, resolute to reach his aunt through chronic sunburn, loss and homelessness. The scenery is wide open to him but, as placid as he may seem, it’s no match for his determination. All the time, the slow burn on misfortune and luck carry him onwards. Peter Debruge finds Haigh’s low-key approach distancing and problematic, but this isn’t so much making Charley unrelatable as the film giving him a respectful space to do things his way. It’s a careful tone that doesn’t high-light self-pity because it’s protagonist doesn’t. In this way, it’s more like the more observational coming-of-age dramas like ‘American Honey’ or even ‘The Florida Project’, but it’s still something warm and ragingly empathic. Ultimately, it is a thoroughly moving ramble through a rites-of-passage that doesn’t even feel like heroic overcoming-of-the-odds, but rather just how things are for this kid.