LEAN ON PETE is Exquisite Filmmaking at its Finest

An emotional coming-of-age story that favors honesty over sentiment.

It seems that with the greatest of ease and as little ceremony as possible, Andrew Haigh is becoming one of the most telling writer/producer/directors in the industry today. His series Looking provided one of the most insightful views into 21st century gay culture while finding love from both critics and audiences. He then wowed lovers of arthouse cinema with the pensive and profound marital drama 45 Years, one of 2015’s most acclaimed titles. Now Haigh returns with his follow-up feature, the coming-of-age drama Lean on Pete. Summarized by many as a film about a boy and his horse, Lean on Pete may seem a rather left field choice for the director (who also serves as co-writer here with Willy Vlautin), even with his much-hearlded eclectic body of work. At the same time, the way he opens up the central premise of the story and takes it deeper than meets the eye, much in the way he approaches all his projects, continues to make him one of the few voices who could pull a cinematic experience like this off.

In Lean on Pete, Charlie Plummer stars as Charley, a 16-year-old kid being raised by his hard-working single father Ray (Travis Fimmel) who has a slight penchant for trouble; namely taking up with married women, but who loves his son and tries to do right by him as much as he can. Lonely and constantly jogging around town, Charley becomes taken by an aging racehorse named Lean on Pete. When Pete’s owner Del (Steve Buscemi), himself nearing the end of his career, offers Charley a summer job helping him with getting his horses ready for races, he accepts. Eventually, the teen and the horse embark on an adventure which takes Charley to places he never expected.

If there’s two things which Lean on Pete has in common with Haigh’s previous works, it’s his penchant for character and his intricate crafting of the world they’re in. Here, the Pacific Northwest is well-used in all it’s glory with plenty of sprawling landscapes which are well-suited for the arena of horse racing. It’s a world which is alien to the teenager and one that greatly fascinates him, particularly where Pete is concerned. Watching the horse gallop in his races and running through the vast lands all simultaneously seem to be practically begging Charley to unleash his emotions and let his own spirit run free. In the midst of this, the film takes great care to establish the relationship between Charley and Ray. Haigh makes sure that the audience can see that father and son have weathered a number of storms which have left their emotional effects, but have also strengthened the love they share. Ray may not know the best way to raise his son, but there’s never any doubt that he isn’t giving the job his all; and Charley knows it.

Shot against some of the truly beautiful backdrops, Lean on Pete becomes one of the most gentle and incredibly cathartic film experiences in recent times.There’s certainly some surprise that comes with the fact that Lean on Pete ends up not being less a story about a boy and his horse, and more a boy coming to grips with his past and his present. The times when he is with Pete are the only instances where Charley can unburden himself and discover how his past has affected him, from the death of his mother, to his worries about his father, to the whereabouts of his long-lost aunt, whom the youngster sorely misses. It’s these moments between Charley and Pete , most virtually sans dialogue, when the film truly comes to life. During these scenes, the character truly gets to breath and, in the presence of the majestic animal and his physical closeness to him, we are let in to all of Charley’s emotions, fears and frustrations.

Plummer is such a standout as Charley. After managing to hold his own alongside his famous fellow castmates in last December’s All the Money in the World, he commands the screen in the most subtle, yet unbelievably powerful of ways. It takes true skill to convey the range of bottled up frustration and confusion which plagues Charley, but the young actor makes every one of them deeply felt. It takes some time for Buscemi to settle into his role, yet the way he tells his character’s story without explicitly telling it, is just the kind of work one would expect from such a pro. Fimmel is compelling and makes a case for Ray, while Steve Zahn, as a traveler Charley encounters and Chloe Sevigny as a fellow horse racer are both given enough room to establish characters of their own, doing great work in the process.

It’s hard to convey just how much honesty and sensitivity Haigh has injected into Lean on Pete without every once bordering on any syrupy emotional gimmies. Instead, the director favors a real, naturalistic feel where characters venture in and out and not everything is wrapped up neatly by any means. The result is a film with the greatest power of resonating with its audience. In the end, Lean on Pete proudly stands tall as a film which doesn’t go for traditional emotional beats, but instead depends on human ones which are relatable and genuine, even if they aren’t the most pleasant. Both the film and it’s audience are much better off for it.

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