Director: Andrew Haigh
Screenplay: Andrew Haigh
Based on a Novel by: Willy Vlautin
Starring: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel
Running Time: 117 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Andrew Haigh has been quietly making a name for himself since his breakthrough Weekend in 2011 (his actual debut, Greek Pete didn’t make much of an impact). Weekend picked up quite a few awards on the festival circuit and received very positive reviews. It was his 2015 follow up, 45 Years, that was my introduction to his work though. Once again it garnered rave reviews and multiple awards and rightfully so, as it’s a beautifully understated and mature film, particularly coming from a relatively young filmmaker. I loved the film, so was excited to watch his latest, Lean on Pete.
The film sees Charlie Plummer play Charley, a teenager living on the breadline with his loving but selfish and lazy father Ray (Travis Fimmel). Charley likes to run and one morning passes a racecourse. Curious, he takes a look around and is drawn to the world of horse racing. He bumps into trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and helps him out, leading to a regular job dealing with the horses. Charley enjoys the work and gets on with Del (although he can be a bit of a hard-ass) and jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). Most of all though he loves Del’s horse Lean on Pete. However, Pete is at the end of his racing career and Del asks Charley to load up the horse to be sent off to Mexico to be butchered. Charley can’t accept this fate, particularly after his dad dies and he’s left with no one, so he runs off with Pete. Thus begins a road movie where some surprising turns make life tough for the young man who wants to find his aunt Margy (Alison Elliott) who he hasn’t seen for a number of years.
I have a real soft spot for quiet, subtle films like these, particularly coming of age dramas, and I’ve always had a thing for the open expanses of the American West too, so as you’d imagine I liked Lean on Pete a lot. Like with 45 Years, there’s a natural, understated feel to proceedings, although here the setting allows for a larger canvas in terms of imagery and the story has some much ‘bigger’ moments than the very subtle previous film. It’s still a small, intimate story though, focusing very closely on Charley. In fact, most other characters disappear unceremoniously along the way. This can prove a little frustrating in some cases, particularly Bonnie and Del who are strong characters and it’s a shame not to see how they deal with what Charley does. That would be unnecessary though in the grander scheme of things and Haigh knows this.
Such a singular focus would fail without the right lead and it’s a dangerous game relying on the performance of a teenager to carry a film, but Plummer is perfect as Charley. His performance is surprisingly nuanced for his age and he displays just the right level of sensitivity and resilience required. The supporting cast are decent too. Buscemi and Sevigny are always reliable and Fimmel effectively portrays both the inherent love for his son and the less admirable qualities of his character.
The concept of a young man and his horse going on a road trip sounds a bit sappy, but it’s an admirably unsentimental affair. Some scenes which have Charley relate his life story to the animal when they’re out in the desert seem a bit forced and sentimental, presenting the only small complaint I’d have about the film. Overall though, the film approaches its characters and situations sensitively and believably without lurching into melodrama. The end of the film in particular could have been rather corny in the wrong hands, but instead it’s touching and provides an interesting spin on the typical coming of age denouement. Without wanting to spoil the ending (skip to the next paragraph if you like), I felt it showed Charley finally acting like a child when he had a parent figure in his life after previously having to handle the responsibilities of an adult due to his circumstances.
The film looks beautiful too. Haigh may be British and his cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck Danish, but they know how to make the most of the American landscape. There’s a naturalism to the style of the film, but it remains very cinematic with a lot of long takes and smooth movement rather than the shaky handheld camerawork often used to denote ‘realism’. There’s a particularly outstanding shot which follows Charley from inside the racecourse lounge out to the side of the track to see Pete and the other horses race past. It must have been a nightmare to orchestrate, but Haigh and his crew pull it off beautifully.
Overall, it’s touching without getting overly sentimental and often harsh, without descending into ‘misery-porn’ territories. It’s a quietly beautiful film about family and dependence. There are comments on the state of America along the way too, but they’re never too clunky to detract from the central drama, which is effortlessly led by the young Plummer. It’s another winner from Andrew Haigh and shows he’s one to watch in the future.
Lean on Pete is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Curzon Artificial Eye. I saw the DVD version and the film looks and sounds decent.
There are more than 90 minutes worth of special features included. These are as follows:
– Exclusive Interview with Director & Writer Andrew Haigh
- Behind the scenes
- Interviews with cast and crew
- Charlie Plummer – Charlie
- Chloe Sevigny – Bonnie
– Steve Buscemi – Del - Travis Fimmel – Ray - Andrew Haigh – Director/Writer - Tristan Goligher – Producer - Willy Vlautin – Author - Ryan Warren Smith – Production Designer
It’s a solid bunch of interviews, although the questions are often similar and not all that probing.