THREE years after delivering the impressive Oscar-nominated drama 45 Years, Andrew Haigh continues to build his reputation as one of the UK’s most interesting directors of his generation by going stateside with a heart-rending coming-of-age piece called Lean On Pete.
Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a fifteen-year old boy living in Portland, Oregon with his single parent father (Travis Fimmel) who is conducting an affair with its fair share of risk. He quickly finds employment working for a horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) who takes him under his wing and in doing so introduces him to one of the horses Lean on Pete, whom Charley gradually develops a soft spot for.
They are joined by friendly jockey Bonnie (Amy Sevigny) who reminds Charley not to get attached as they are not pets and just part of a business where there’s only one outcome once deemed no longer fit for purpose. Sadly Pete is no longer seen as viable, now reduced to coming last in races and Del’s economic plans to send him to a slaughterhouse in Mexico appear inevitable.
When tragedy hits home, Charley seizes the opportunity to free the horse and together with his adopted pet, they leave Portland and head off an ambitious trek, fist by car then by foot across the frontier to begin a new life and reunite with his estranged mother.
What makes this film succeed is the film’s two-half structure which allows stable (no pun intended) character arc and a good balance of sequences, often done in an unexpected but respectable manner.
The first half focuses on the working side of Charley where his relationship with Del appears awkward but bearable, helped by Buscemi and Plummer’s watchable plays of respective master and apprentice. Del appears a veteran of the job, making ends meet despite an injured arm but at one point expressing his frustrations with the job and vaguely suggesting regret at picking a career this boy may be about to commit to.
Sevigny’s jockey character adds to this trio, playing a more genteel character than the sullen Del and sarcastically mentioning early on how she has put up with Del for as long as they have in. She is more approachable and easier to speak to about Pete so her presence as a confidant is appealing as well as useful to the story.
Following events that make up the first half of the story, the film then turns into a road movie with a series of encounters with random people along the way. Included are a household who offer Charley and the horse a place to stay when he arrives requesting water and involves a funny scene in which whilst drinking beer, a burping spree leads to knowing laughter and a sense of community which Charley fits into.
There is a part where the film falls into unexpected territory and sets a change in direction later on. On first impression, it seems flawed but it makes it stronger due to the ways it allows the story to move forward. Here Haigh presents us with a part of town with people whom appear left behind, pausing for thought when we compare that with the seemingly affluent area nearby where Charley gets a job painting houses. This section also sees an alcoholic (Steve Zahn) he resides with steal his money, forcing Charlie, bear in mind he is fifteen, forced to resort to violence to get it back.
The film depicts a journey where the boy remains a boy but has to act like a grown-up on occasion if he is to achieve what he is setting out to do. The art of having an animal be the child’s potential saviour is something that brings to mind past and contemporary British films, such as Kes and The Selfish Giant, films which offer a sense of hope or motivation to a young person when an animal comes into the fray.
Like these films, there are moments of tension and yet these come into the story with an unpredictable manner that knocks the viewer out sideways when they occur.
It is headlined by a particularly effective performance from Plummer, whose restrained performance culminates in a particularly poignant scene at the film’s conclusion which suggests a new chapter in his life. Haigh takes this character and transforms him whilst at the same time reminding us that this is a child, a successful characterisation both courtesy of actor and director.
With Weekend and 45 Years, the director already made a welcome presence in British cinema, but with Lean on Pete as well, based on multiple works, Andrew Haigh should be seen as one of the key figures in modern British cinema.