Those who lament the lack of original movie ideas are probably the same people who shy away from the small, often independently released, films that are so often responsible for delivering the types of stories and characters that do deliver unique perspectives and ideas. One such film definitely worth catching, Lean on Pete is a story that, as unlikely as the series of events might seem, somehow manages to work on both a narrative and emotional level. Anchored by a performance of subtle beauty by Charlie Plummer, unlike many other coming-of-age dramas, the film never feels manipulative in the ways in which the teenage protagonist is placed in jeopardy, either physically or emotionally. When we meet Charley (Plummer), he is stuck in a somewhat miserable domestic circumstance with his deadbeat, womanising father Ray (Travis Fimmel) in the aftermath of what seems to be the latest in a long line of relocations, a reality for many young people living in poverty. However, Charley never seems resentful of the situation and simply goes about making the best of the hand he has been dealt.
When he happens upon horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), Charley jumps at the opportunity to earn some money and the two strike up a friendship of sorts, as much as that is possible given Del’s irascible demeanour. The narrative builds momentum as Charley’s domestic situation becomes downright desperate with Plummer delivering a powerfully poignant performance, repaying the faith that director Andrew Haigh has show in him by placing him front and centre of almost every scene. This is a deeply humanist delve into a part of contemporary America we never get to see, with the types of races that Del chases a far cry from the glitz and glamour of big time thoroughbred racing. There is no Seabiscuit or Secretariat to be found amongst his collection of horses, each of which is under constant threat of “being sent to Mexico” (and all that implies) should they no longer be able to pay their way. Always a welcome presence on screen, pop culture icon Chloe Sevigny plays Bonnie, a jockey whose best days are behind her but, like Del, finds it impossible to walk away from the only life she knows. It is when one of the horses to which Charlie has become attached – the eponymous Lean on Pete – has seemingly run its last race and is to be sold that the film morphs into a road movie as Charley, with Pete in tow, sets out to track down his aunt.
This isn’t a story of teen rebellion; it is about a young man who very much wants to find some stability and love in his life. He is intelligent and hard working but has been confined by circumstances that have been beyond his control. As such, the second half of the film is all about Charley’s journey and the people he meets along the way, including Silver (Steve Zahn), a homeless alcoholic prone to fits of rage, and a couple of military servicemen, one of whom is played by Lewis Pullman, who impressed in Bad Night at the El Royale. We don’t spend much time with any of these people but they all seem real, the types who live on the margins of mainstream America and Haigh, who adapted the screenplay from a novel by Willy Vlautin, has been able to give a depth to these bit players that might not ordinarily be afforded to supporting characters.
Charley is such a likeable young man – his decency and determination a far cry from the vacuousness that is so often the go-to attribute for teenage characters – that you absolutely want him to succeed in his quest for to secure nothing more than what the overwhelming majority of us take for granted. Coy and softly-spoken, Charley always seems alone; the few moments of human compassion he encounters here and there never amounting to meaningful companionship. The cinematography beautifully captures the wide expanse of the sparse landscape that Charley and Pete traverse and the pacing may frustrate some viewers. However, Lean on Pete is a beautiful piece of work from Haigh and those that surrender themselves to this slow ride will most certainly be rewarded.