Andrew Haigh’s latest film is somewhat emblematic of his own career progression. After Weekend and 45 Years, Lean on Pete sees the director burst his spheres of British suburbia to explore new territories. Stateside, Haigh translates his favoured hues to broader horizons and brings empathy, irony and stoic realism.
Lean on Pete opens with our protagonist, Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer), running. It’s a sequence loaded with resonance for all to come, positioning themes of isolation and escapism front and centre with wordless ease. Haigh has a marvellous talent for making nothing at all seem highly compelling and it sings here in an overture chorused only by life.
Aged somewhere between fifteen and sixteen, depending on whom he is telling, Charley has been relocated from his old life, school and friends to Portland, Oregon, by dad Ray (Travis Fimmel). During his inaugural run – away from Ray and his latest married fling – Charley is drawn to the local racetrack and to the five-year-old quarter horse he finds there. Perhaps he identifies with the eponymous horse; both are hard-working, gentle and undervalued, both are passive players in the run of life. Charley soon finds himself offered work by Pete’s owner, Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), and begins to accompany the pair, along with pragmatic jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), on their tours of west coast races.
There is an perfectly captured naivety to Plummer’s quavering performance throughout the film, one that is heightened in his relationships with those around him. It is a key irony of Lean on Pete, which is based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, that all Charley desires is a maternal figure but all he is repeatedly presented with are wayward fathers. His biological father plays with fire and is burnt because of it, Del steps in to provide viciously blunt advice and, later on, a drunk will prove spectacularly unreliable. All is laid forth by Haigh with deliberate distance and so it is only in the poignant finale that the damage is exposed.
Almost exactly halfway through the film, an expected change in direction leads down unexpected avenues, sacrificing the emotional intensity of the opening for an equally engaging discussion piece. Steinbeck seeps through the veins of this segment, which is leant a gorgeous visual quality by cinematographer Magnus Joenck and sonorous depth through the ethereal compositions of James Edward Barker.
Lean on Pete himself has an intriguing role in the film – is he a companion, foil or metaphor? – and marks a consistently impressive and symbolic presence. Haigh’s film is not the Seabiscuit tale you may be expecting for nothing here is so black and white. Although women in the film are over marginalised, no character is beyond sympathy and there is little sense that Haigh’s script is following some cliched arc. A warning for the faint of heart: there is more than one harrowing moment in the film and the last is shocking.
Plummer may be a talent to watch but this, his break-out film, is one to rewatch. It is deceptively simple, intelligently effective and highly rewarding.