Film Review: Lean on Pete

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Director: Andrew Haigh

15 | 2h 1min | Adventure, Drama | 4 May 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★ ★ ★ ★  

A troubled teenager and the old racehorse he has instinctively decided to save from the scrapheap escape out into the wide, empty Portland, Oregon country in 45 Years director Andrew Haigh’s poignant, quiet adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel, which boasts a raft of fine, unforced performances. Though the description of the plot sounds somewhat Disney-ish, Haigh's sparse screenplay and the cinematography from DP Magnus Nordenhof Jønck gives us a picture of an often-handsome landscape that nevertheless keeps a hard edge never far out of view. This part of America might offer up plenty of verdant rolling plains and gorgeous desert sunsets which give us a good flavour of a more rural and emptier part of the world, but there are run-down racetracks, crummy diners, and garbage piles too. This part of the country doesn't offer much of a support structure or empathy for someone as young and resourceless as teen jockey assistant Charley (Charlie Plummer), who has impulsively taken off with his gruff employer Del's (Steve Buscemi) broken-down horse Lean on Pete to spare him from what Charley fears is a cashing-out sale to Mexican horseflesh dealers.

Sensitively played by the rake-thin Plummer, Charley is tough enough thanks to a life on the breadline with a layabout drunk of a father (played effectively by a podgy and somewhat childish Travis Fimell, who is nevertheless steered clear of the violent drunk archetype, being just useless) to have built up some cynicism about the world, but he's still too young and isolated to have developed the smarts and to have outgrown a certain level of naivety that might have prevented him becoming so fixated on this horse. His plight is both genuinely touching, but also totally helpless, with bailing on paychecks in restaurants and siphoning gas from cars soon becoming Charley's M.O after about 48 hours into his mission. Romantic it is not, even if the land he is lost in is at times undeniably lovely to look at. But you can't stay lost out here for ever when your gas tank is empty and your wallet is light.

Yet no matter how much he might see it that way, the world Charley is trying to escape from isn't one of clear-cut good and evil either. Both Del and his world-weary jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) have been undoubtedly poisoned by years of falling deeper and deeper into the less glamorous and cash-poor side of horse racing (in one scene Del opines, after a win with Lean on Pete, that they'd better rapidly pack up and leave before the gambling crowd gets too drunk and aggressive to pay them their winnings), but they aren't without a kind of grudging, fleeting shard of compassion for Charley. They've just long since stopped seeing the fate of horses that can't ride anymore as anything other than just a sad fact of life. Charley, on the other hand, clearly needs something from Lean on Pete, particularly when his father is taken from him and his last anchor is gone. His flight is an act of defiance and desperation. The rumpled, balding Buscemi is great in the few scenes he has, playing Del as a frazzled and bitter guy constantly surprised by the level of care he keeps mustering up for this naive but well-meaning kid. You could build a great film around him too, or Bonnie, for that matter .

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.