Andrew Haigh has made two very distinctly British (and award-winning) films with his gay love story Weekend and the marital drama 45 Years, followed by his US-based HBO drama Looking. He now stays Stateside for his third film. Based on the 2010 novel by Willy Vlautin, at its core Lean on Pete is a very simple tale of a boy and his horse boasting the same innocence and purity as Ken Loach’s classic Kes.
Beginning in Portland, Oregon, the focus is the 15 year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer), who is in a world where adults have let him down. His mother is long gone and his boozy, womanising father (Travis Fimmel) is unreliable. The only joy in his life comes when he gets a job working for Del (Steve Buscemi), a shabby horse trainer who works the local quarter-mile race circuit.
Charley befriends the horse’s jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), but the real friendship comes with Del’s horse, Lean on Pete. When Charley discovers that Pete might eventually be sold for meat, he makes a split second decision and takes off with the horse, deciding to cross country and find his estranged aunt (and the emotional nourishment that he so clearly needs in life).
As it unfolds, Lean on Pete becomes a picaresque road movie across America, as Charley and his horse travel from state to state. What transpires ultimately is, perhaps, obvious; there are no great surprises in Lean on Pete, but the emotional terrain it covers will melt even the hardest of hearts. Anyone who has ever bonded with an animal, equine or otherwise, will understand the film’s beauty.
Plummer, who recently appeared in Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World, won Best Young Actor at last year’s Venice Film Festival for his work here and rightly so. He’s superb, ably guided by Haigh, who has real skill in drawing performances from his cast. For Trees Lounge fans, it’s also a pleasure to see Buscemi and Sevigny’s first on-screen pairing since that movie.
Shot by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck with a real understanding of the American landscape, Lean on Pete has a gentle, poetic quality to it that is rarely found in contemporary cinema. A mournful study of loss, love and loneliness, even if the ending is telegraphed, it will have won you over long before.
Lean on Pete opens in cinemas on 4 May. For more information, visit Curzon.
1. Still from Lean on Pete.