There’s energy to youth that’s difficult to comprehend. Rather than hyperactivity or too much Sunny-D, merely memories of running to your friend’s house and taking long walks without considering fatigue seem so distant when looking back in your thirties.
Lean on Pete, the third theatrical release from Andrew Haigh, begins his film with a young teenager, Charley (Charlie Plummer), falling for the grace and strength of a race horse, a magnificent beast who shares the relentless pace of this challenged teen.
Set across a sprawling three states in the Pacific Northwest, Lean on Pete is a step away from the intimate flats and homes of his characters in Week-End and 45 Years. Charley lives with his father Ray (Travis Fimmel), who seems to see his son as a mate to share his conquests with, rather than a son he needs to actively raise. There are mysterious question marks regarding how he became Charley’s only family. Charley’s mother left when he was young; Charley has lost contact with his adoring aunt and Ray refuses to let him get back in touch; Charley was successful on his high-school football team, and that was the point Ray decided to move “for work”. But Charley, quiet and unassuming, chose to be with his father and is content. In fact, Charley finds a local horse stable and manages to nab a paid job to take care of the horses, under the guidance of the craggy and irascible Del (Steve Buscemi). Charley becomes particularly close to one horse, named “Lean on Pete”. Through further unfortunate events, and the realisation that Del (and the industry) doesn’t look after these creatures as best they could, Charley is forced to make decisions he had never thought he’d make, and find himself in places he never thought he’d be.
Haigh’s previous film, 45 Years, is located in the rural landscape of Yorkshire. To mark the time passing by, Kate, Charlotte Rampling’s character, walks her dog. The morning dew, foggy air and lush green overgrowth is captured exquisitely. For Kate, and us, it is a moment of peace and beauty, in an otherwise quietly devastating series of events. Lean on Pete is a wider canvas, with a broader picture of the desert plains and isolated expanse of America. This gives Haigh the opportunity to capture effortlessly, whether it is a cold night or in the blistering heat of the day, the long journey of Charley. In one memorable shot, a field of plants, like a pattern, dominates the screen except for the slim skyline that squeezes in at the top. Charley, with Pete, slowly work their way through on a diagonal. They are so small in comparison to the enormous screen you watch them upon.
Unlike Week-End and 45 Years, this is on the shoulders of one actor: Charlie Plummer. This is a star in the making, with a quiet assuredness that ties the stubborn attitude of his father with his sensitive and thoughtful presence. He begins the film like a lost child, uncertain of the advice his Dad gives him but willing to listen as best he can. There are moments of joy too, with a growing love for an animal bringing out the best in him. Supported by a series of smaller, crucial roles played by the likes of Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn and Alison Elliot, Plummer is the boy we follow and by the end, we see how much he has grown.
Lean on Pete is a brutal, patient film that challenges us to confront our own lack of knowledge regarding the trials that shape and build a person. Steel yourself, and be prepared to fall into an abyss of heartache, but rest assured, Charlie Plummer and director Andrew Haigh, are a secure, safe pair of hands to lead you through.
This was originally published for Culturefly.co.uk in May 2018