Lean on Pete ebbs, flows and transforms throughout its running time, but the one ever-present current is that of a journey. And, as with all journeys with a silent driver (director Andrew Haigh), one can sometimes lose faith on the way, unsure of how much further there is to go. But, the rewarding destination is gratefully received and more than makes up for the slack.
15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) picks up a job helping tough horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) on race days and around the stables. When Charley’s dad (Travis Fimmel) is hospitalised, his wages go from a treat to something vital. However, the equestrian life has pains of its own, as Charley becomes attached to ageing racehorse Lean on Pete.
It’s on a morning run that Charley first bumps into Del. The work puts an end to his hobby, but he maintains his impulse for movement throughout his time working with the horses and that drives his decision-making throughout the film. At first, it seems Charley is attempting to flee from a difficult childhood, but as each adult he meets further disappoints, it’s clear he’s just as likely running from adulthood as well.
These “adults” that Charley crosses paths with cover a range of character archetypes and functions. There’s the incompetent father, the harsh mentor, the sensitive maternal figure, the abusive drunk — yet they feel like more than simple snapshots, thanks to Haigh’s sensitive writing and a selection of terrific character actors. Fimmel and Buscemi are both great, as are the likes of Chloë Sevigny, Steve Zahn and Amy Seimetz, all of whom add richness to the character portraits. Plummer is truly tremendous in the lead role, though. Childlike and grown up all at once, he perfectly captures that liminal phase of life between adolescence and adulthood.
This is the English filmmaker’s first US-set feature (he did direct 10 episodes of HBO’s Looking a few years back), but his strong sense of place remains. The Pacific Northwest is shot beautifully. Textured autumnal hues are set against pastel skylines, as sunlight streaks off a horse’s back. Haigh’s use of the built environment is strong too, with shots through doorways and reflections in windows adding an intimacy to the visuals.
Haigh’s approach extends to the equine setting. His tight focus on Charley makes an already niche subculture feel even more specific. At the first race, Del warns Charley not to blink because he might miss it. Haigh captures that feeling in his filmmaking. Brief as they may be, the races are stunningly presented and capture a palpable euphoria, despite the camera barely leaving Charley’s side. These sequences are yet another example of Haigh succeeding in making the small feel big: a hallmark of the most powerful independent cinema.
This does result in a two-hour running time that feels noticeably lengthy. The mood remains understated throughout, and that can seem downcast on occasion. But, through time and living and learning with these characters, Lean on Pete hits the mark emotionally and reveals itself to be a poised, moving film.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.