Review written by contributing blogger extraordinaire, Bill Clark
Lean on Pete, British director Andrew Haigh’s first American- made film, opens with the camera following behind 15-year-old Charley Thompson as he does his morning run through an impoverished Portland neighborhood under overcast summer skies.
Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher) brilliantly plays Charley as the son of his single alcoholic father Ray (Travis Fimmel) and is in almost every scene with an award-winning performance.
Having left Spokane due to his father’s search for another warehouse job, Charley is uprooted from his old high school, his friends and his role as cornerback and sometimes wide receiver on the football team, a metaphor for Charley’s penchant for being left out there, alone.
On his own, he finds work as a stable hand at a second-class racetrack working for Del (Steve Buscemi), a down-on-his-luck gruff and brusque owner of quarter horses he races on the county-fair circuit. Del becomes Charley’s mentor – if you can call, “Just clean out the shit from the trailer,” mentoring – and pays Charley in cash, a scarce resource in the Thompson household.
Charley’s father reluctantly accepts the cash and shows his love for his son in a hardscrabble kind of way – a tug on Charley’s baseball cap as he goes out for another night of drinking.
Somewhat predictably, Charley grows fond of one of the older quarter horses, Lean on Pete, who is at the end of his racing career and destined to a one-way trip to a Mexican slaughterhouse.
Just when you think this may be the British director’s slow-unfolding take on a remake of My Friend Flicka, a series of sudden, disastrous, fatal, random events, including the death of his father, leave Charley alone with Pete.
In one evening Charley becomes both a rustler and a car thief as he leads Pete into the horse trailer to avoid the abattoir and drives off in Del’s old pickup truck in search of a long-lost aunt in Wyoming, a thousand miles away – a teenage outlaw on the run in the New West.
The film faithfully follows the episodic arc of the 2010 Willy Vlautin novel, with a series of characters who unfailingly help Charley and his horse, revealing Vlautin’s melancholic view of the New West and its marginalized inhabitants.
But the pair’s situation becomes even more and more desperate, finally forced on foot to cross high desert terrain beautifully photographed by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck and accompanied by James Edward Barker’s haunting music score.
As they journey through some of the most bleak areas in the country, dehydrated and starving Charley recounts to Pete in jagged soliloquies his own desolate inner life and life events.
As if nothing more could happen to Charley, it does.
Left alone utterly, he continues to search for his aunt.
At the end, after successfully reunited with his aunt, we watch Charley from behind, running alone as he was at the beginning, then stopping and looking back. Plummer’s expression silently illuminates what Charley feels: hope, apprehension, fear, determination, vulnerability – human realness.
The film was made by A24 Studios, the same studio that brought us Moonlight. Together with films like The Florida Project we are beginning to see mainstream movies depicting the same human realness of the working, and not so working, poor i in nonglamourous, nonsentimental, nonsensationalized ways. Least we forget.