One of Britain’s rising filmmaking talents is Yorkshire director Andrew Haigh, with acclaimed films such as Weekend and 45 Years, he has shown himself to be a master at realism and humanist drama. After wrapping up a period directing and co-writing HBO series Looking, Haigh is returning to the big screen with a new film. This is his first film made outside of the UK and his first film made from an adapted screenplay, based on a book of the same name. Despite these differences, Lean on Pete shows Haigh continuing to prove himself as a powerful director, able to handle complex emotional themes.
Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) is a 16-year-old living in Portland, Oregon with his divorced father Ray (Travis Fimmel). Charley has memories of his estranged aunt whom he hopes to be re-united with. One day, he gets a job at a stable run by Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi) where he develops an attachment to a horse named Lean on Pete. After a series of failed races, it is decided that the horse is to be sent to Mexico and possibly put down. Charley decides to steal Lean on Pete to save him and go across the country to reunite with his aunt.
Charley is characterised as being incredibly lonely. He has no friends, no family and no real sense of direction. In a sense, he is like a horse without a trainer. This makes his connection with Lean on Pete entirely believable, because he views the horse as being an extension of himself. He works as a believable protagonist because he is a complex mix of selfish and compassionate, which is why he goes on this journey in the first place.
The other characters are all shown to be slaves to their environment, but they are not unsympathetic. Ray may lack responsibility and is the reason why Charley’s mum and aunt are not around, but he clearly loves his son and wants the best for him. Del is certainly a businessman who does not personally care about his horses, but is a fair and respectful employer. Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), a female jockey, is a cynic who refuses to bend the rules to help Charley, but from a world-weary attitude rather than a meanspirited one. These characters fail to provide good parental figures for Charley, leading him to go with Lean on Pete on his own.
Whilst every actor does an excellent job, Charlie Plummer excels. He resists the urge to go over the top in the dramatic scenes and they work all the better for it. He also carries the second half entirely by himself and makes monologing to the horse sound natural. The other players are solid too, with Travis Fimmel, Chloe Sevigny and Steve Buscemi imbuing their rough characters with plenty of likeability and charm, giving some of their most nuanced work to date.
Some of the films themes revolve around choice and the quest for life to have meaning; Charley frequently makes choices that may give him a short-term purpose, but ultimately do not benefit him. As a result, the story often feels aimless, but this an effective choice for a slice of life drama/road movie. The script is also very depressing in places, though these moments are backed up by an ending that gives a lot of pathos and caps off the intentionally plot-thin story with a note of hopeful ambiguity.
I only had two issues with the storytelling: firstly, a shocking and depressing sequence in the second half feels contrived and could leave audiences laughing instead of gasping. The other is that sometimes the slow pacing can make the films 2-hour run time drag, particularly in the second half when Charley descends into aimless wandering.
The cinematography and direction are beautifully understated. Andrew Haigh’s trademark long takes are back in full force, with many of them being framed in a manner that makes them feel incredibly real. Another aspect of Lean on Pete’s realism relies on how a lot of its sequences are shot in a “fly on the wall” style with angles being from a distance or from behind Charley. In the second half, Haigh takes advantage of the American landscape to deliver beautiful shots of nightlife and the desert. There is a sense of grittiness to the environments seen in the film that requires a filmmaker with a great grasp on realism; it is easily his best-looking film to date.
Lean on Pete is an effective and understated drama that proves Andrew Haigh’s winning streak isn’t yet over. The characters and storytelling are incredibly subtle and layered, with well-developed themes being the cherry on top. The visuals are gorgeous and as a star vehicle for Charlie Plummer, the film succeeds. Plummer and Haigh will hopefully get bigger projects in the future, which I await eagerly.