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LEAN ON PETE (2018) review

April 11, 2018

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written by: Andrew Haigh
produced by: Tristan Goligher
directed by: Andrew Haigh
rated: R (for language and brief violence)
runtime: 121 min.
U.S. release date: April 13, 2018

 

The setup and trailer for “Lean on Pete” may feel like something that would come  from a writer like Nicholas Sparks or the kind of faith-based fare that is often promoted by mega-churches. There’s definitely an audience for those stories, but  the latest from English writer/director Andrew Haigh (“Weekend” and “45 Years”) isn’t what it appears to be. Based on the 2010 novel of the same name by American author Willy Vlautin, “Lean on Pete” a touching and thoroughly engaging story that definitely winds up becoming more than the “a boy and his horse” it looks like. What we have is something quite special here, a film that’s different than what we’re used to, yet harkens to a classic kind of storytelling.

Employing a tone that deftly utilizes both a stillness and a respect for the Pacific Northwest geography that it takes place in, Haigh’s adaptation focuses on fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) who lives in Portland, Oregon with his father Ray (Travis Fimmel), who is something of a derelict yet insists he’s able to provide for the teenager. They are relatively new to the area, having previously lived in Spokane, Washington, and most of the time Charley is left to fend for himself amid empty cupboards and the occasional twenty dollars that Ray throws his way. Charley longs for stability and maybe a life that’s similar to anyone else his age – high school, girls and sports – but, the two seem to get by, despite nearing the edge of dire straits.

 

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Charley occupies himself with running, a solitary act which takes him both physically and mentally away from home life. One day he discovers that he lives near a local racetrack, something that piques the boy’s interest and in no time Charley stumbles upon a job there, assisting Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), a surly horse owner. The boy has no experience, but it’s clear to Del he’s not afraid to work hard and Charley soon experiences acceptance and camaraderie that’s been absent in his life. Finding a purpose with this new job, Charley is able to provide the essential needs his father neglects, but things hit a snag when the husband of the girl Ray was having a fling with, a co-worker named Lynn (an all-too brief Amy Seimetz), leaves Ray gravely injured and hospitalized.

With circumstances suddenly unpredictable at home, Charley decides to stay in the stable next to Lean on Pete, an aging five-year-old Quarter horse he’s begun to look after. Despite the warning from Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a seasoned minor league jockey who works with Del, not to get personally connected to horses, Charley develops quite a bond with Lean on Pete. When he learns that Pete will be sent off to the Mexican slaughterhouse, Charley takes matters into his own hands and secretly sets off with his friend, beginning a challenging adventure into the unknown, determined to find the kind aunt (Allison Elliott) in Wyoming, who used to look after him when he was younger. As he attempts to care for himself and his horse, Charley does his best to maintain hope that he can find a place he can call home.

While watching “Lean on Pete” there will be a feeling of witnessing great storytelling unfold, which is not something that typically goes through your mind when watching a modern new release. It’s not a thought that distracts or pulls you out of the immersion of the picture, but there will be a wave of appreciation of what Haigh and his cast has accomplished here. It’s that rare film that isn’t in a hurry and cares very little about spelling anything out for the audience, meeting expectations or serving up cliched characters. These are all things to take into consideration and be grateful for.

 

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Maybe it’s the Pacific Northwest setting, but what Haigh accomplishes here can be compared to filmmakers like Gus Van Sant and Kelly Reichardt, who’ve delivered nomadic features set in this region of America, such as “Gerry” and “Old Joy”, respectively. Those are two examples of directors who’ve done what Haigh is doing here and that is to embrace a steady quietness for his film, while relying on a rugged assuredness without emphasizing machismo or Western stereotypes. The Oregon and Washington locations used for the small tracks that Charley and Del travel to with their racing horses and the sights Charley and Pete maneuver through look and feel so distinctive and untouched by movie magic. At times, the locations and setting feel just as much of a character as any of the actors involved.

On that note, the more time spent with the characters who inhabit them, the more we see how they share a desperate yet resilient commonality that’s kind of admirable. It’s a shroud that permeates the film, but never brings it down. Sure, these characters are down on their luck, but they’re set in their ways and quite content. By all means, the lanky Charlie Plummer (last seen in “All the Money in the World”) is pretty fantastic as the shaggy protagonist of the story. He conveys loneliness and helplessness with measured subtleties and, at times, when he’s extremely panicked or distressed we hear these rapid breaths from him, in a manner that somewhat resembles the audible panics from Pete. Eventually, this boy and his horse, come across completely aligned in their outward cadence and in their inward quietness that only they can understand. It’s kind of beautiful – until it’s not and the cruel reality of life hits them.

The rest of the cast is equally impressive, portraying lived-in and worn-down characters who just seem to continue day-after-day somehow. Buscemi is always great, but I can’t recall seeing him navigate a role that asks him to go from being a thin-skinned weasel (which he’s mastered in the past) to a guy who could be what Charley needs in life.  The two are great together and their best scene is at a diner over lunch where Buscemi’s Del is aghast at Charley’s woeful table manners (let’s just say, he kind of eats like a horse). Buscemi effortlessly owns that scene, which has its hilarious moments but also leaves us feeling a little embarrassed for Charley.

 

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Typically in a story like this, a teen like Charley would eventually encounter a girl his age that could possibly be a romantic interest, but thankfully that’s not here. We have Sevigny, whose been another great actor for years now, portraying a woman nearing middle age – whose had multiple physical injuries from her work with horses, yet continues to ride – someone who is kind to Charley, but not necessarily offering the warmth you’d expect in a role like this. Both of these supporting characters wind up subverting viewer expectations, establishing them as more real-world characters than we’re used to in coming-of-age tales.

Once Charley and Pete are on the road, they inevitably encounter others on their journey, which opens them up to some vulnerable situations. Some are kind and trustworthy, while others should be watched carefully, yet Charley doesn’t have the life experience to determine which is what. We see that when Charley meets a homeless guy named Silver (Steve Zahn), who shows the boy where he can meet his needs in an urban setting. Zahn dials it up to eleven at times, but he’s always a pleasure to watch and adds some uncertainty where we think we may be getting some levity.

As we travel with Charley, we want him to catch a break and find some stability somewhere, so “Lean on Pete” can be kind of an emotional roller coaster at times, but Haigh also peppers tranquil reflective moments that allow us to catch our breath and appreciate the environments and interactions Charley experiences.

The film is based on Vlautin’s award-winning third novel, known for its earnest albeit unsentimental tone, which touches on grief and a natural yearning to connect. That definitely translates on the big-screen in a authentic manner as Charley’s harrowing, heartwarming and jarring coming-of-age story puts viewers through the gamut of emotions. Ultimately, Haigh and his cast successfully bring to life the honest romanticism of classic American literature, delivering a story with relatable desires of the heart.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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