Director: Andrew Haigh Starring: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Travis Fimmel, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Zahn Runtime: 121 Minutes
Lean On Pete is one of those rare films that values authenticity over sentimentality. No Hollywood sheen tints the lens. No overstated points on rural America’s current economic climate are made. No faux sense of understanding for the countryside’s cuts and bruises is offered up. Instead, Lean On Pete uses an understated approach, opting for honest storytelling over cheap mawkishness. The characters that occupy this land and the stories they tell are important to the filmmakers, yet nothing is ever overly dramatic or artificial.
It is here that we are introduced to Charley Thompson (Plummer); a young boy who traverses the blistering Oregon deserts to find his last known relative living thousands of miles away. Accompanying Charley on his journey is Lean On Pete, a failing racehorse who Charley forms a great bond with after securing a summer job in a local stables. Although it seems like a simple story on the outside, Lean On Pete is told with wonderful tenderness, compassion and sincerity, making for one of the most devastatingly beautiful movies of 2018.
Adapted from Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name, writer/director Andrew Haigh presents a restrained script that still manages to exude warmth and powerful emotion. In lieu of overly-practised monologues and forced dialogue, Haigh opts for naturalistic, more intimate scenes between characters to define each of them. These take the form of early morning breakfasts, near-silent car journeys and frustrated rantings, revealing to us the strengths and flaws of every character that appears on-screen.
Ever conscious of his surroundings, Haigh manages to paint a vivid picture of the scorched and rusted countryside without exploiting it for emotional emphasis or exploring it in too much detail. Although the gentle kindness of its residents is on full display, the filmmakers don’t stray away from showing the scars that this land has acquired throughout the years. In one poignant scene, two helpful U.S. soldiers who take Charley in briefly discuss their experience overseas, a haunting experience that they have unwillingly brought home with them. The subtlety and power with which this message is communicated is yet another feather in Haigh’s cap as a writer/director, as no point is overstated. Instead, it is simply a remark that says so much about the environment Charley finds himself negotiating across.
In many ways, Haigh’s brilliant script tries to avoid the ‘coming-of-age’ label that many have been trying to slap onto the film. Charley’s desperate journey across America is one of cautious optimism as he searches for the next chapter in his life, not for the person he is. Haigh notes that it is hard to ‘come of age’ and discover who you truly are in life without having anything in the first place; no money, no family dynamic, no education, etc. Instead, Charley treks through the dangerous countryside in the hope that life will finally clear a path for him to one day discover who he wants to be – a delicate and complex character note that is so simply illustrated through wonderful writing and direction.
However, Haigh alone is not the making of this film. Lean On Pete is full of wonderful performances from supporting and central stars alike. Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny are involved in some of the most important scenes in the film. As both characters show compassion to Charley, he begins to open up about his life and anxieties. Both Buscemi and Sevigny disappear into their roles, making for organic characters that feel at home in this setting. These make for some of the most impressive and natural performances that these skilled actors have delivered in years.
The most striking performance, however, comes from relative newcomer Charlie Plummer (All The Money In The World, Boardwalk Empire). In what is a complex and difficult role, Plummer shows real talent as a leading man, sinking into the character to deliver a believable performance. There is a sadness deep within Charley that travels with him across the margins of America, one that he can’t comprehend himself. Plummer is able to plant this sadness and confusion at the centre of his performance making for moments of painful emotion in some scenes, something the movie doesn’t shy away from.
Ultimately this is a movie that cares very much for its main character, and Plummer’s performance accompanied by Haigh’s apt writing and direction allow us to care for him too, through both the marvellous highs and devastating lows. Plummer’s performance seems to suggest a career that can only be on an upwards trajectory, calling back to the early days of DiCaprio’s career. This 18 year old actor (who plays 15 years of age in the film) shows maturity and talent far beyond his years, and we should all look forward to what he has to offer in the future.
Lean On Pete feels so real, honest and authentic. This intimate, slow-burning drama is a testament to the talent that both Andrew Haigh and Charlie Plummer can offer cinema. It is a heart wrenching film to watch for sure but that’s just because of the story it wants to tell and the true emotion to be found at the movie’s core. This deeply affecting and beautiful movie is one to be seen and cherished.(5 / 5)