Lean on Pete (2018)
Andrew Haigh is one of the more exciting directors emerging, at least for my tastes. The tender but brutal honesty of clandestine lovers of Weekend, the bitter revelations of 45 Years, and the pitchperfect spearing of youthful reservation of Looking. His work has been exemplary for its natural emotional heft and thriving, troubled characters that draw me into his films. His newest movie Lean on Pete, adapted from Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name, proves to be his weakest entry though still an intriguing journey through the American Northwest with a fantastic lead performance from Charlie Plummer as a boy run adrift following personal tragedy as he journeys to find his aunt with a faded racehorse named Lean on Pete.
This is not an inspirational horse movie; don’t expect Secretariat or Seabiscuit. Expect a heap of tragedy, exploration of a volatile life of homelessness, and ample strife handed to a young man unprepared to face it. Haigh has a talent of turning smaller details, casually presented, into grand, touching cinematic moments. Where Lean on Pete misses the familiarity found in his two previous films or the HBO series, the efforts more familiar having been placed in his native UK or surrounding the lives of urban gay men, respectively, his foray into rural America misses the ease his previous productions presented, but there is strong work still to be found. Steve Buscemi and Chloe Sevigny provide less nasty versions of their respective characters from Vlautin’s novel (Sevigny’s is actually a combination of Del’s working jockey and a washed up female jockey living at the racetrack), they are a mostly plot building element to the film. Buscemi is jocular and mean, a tidy follow-up to his recent scene stealing in The Death of Stalin, and Sevigny–originally auditioned for Charlie’s aunt–teases Charlie with a modicum of warmth in a life filled with neglect and pain. Upon separation, the film hits its bumps but also provides the best teenager-horse acting since ScarJo whispered at some equines.
The emotional peak for this film comes with the quietest moments. Out in the desert, leaving mistakes behind, Charlie finally opens up to Lean on Pete, recounting happier times while the duo seek refuge. Taking from the books more powerful, simply told moments, Charlie gives into the history that has gotten him to this point and reveals his unpreparedness for this venture. Plummer’s wispy voice is heartbreaking in its near cracking. Haigh may have rushed through the source’s ample misadventures, but the film is still rushed as Charlie finds the uglier portions of people and the desperate conditions people will deal with. The ending is consistent with Haigh’s style; there’s going to be more after this, possibly something even more interesting. He usually gives his actors’ small scenes to stretch their legs, and Charlie is given his chances through the latter half. There’s some very specific teenageness to it that is hard to capture; Haigh has impressed me again.