The movie will make audience members weep, but it would have been even more effective if Haigh had allowed some joy along with the tears.
Lean on Pete, adapted from Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel, paints a striking portrait of the rural Pacific Northwest and of the working-class people who inhabit it. British writer-director Andrew Haigh has carved out a distinctive style in just a few films and is an inspired match for the material, his naturalistic, sober filmmaking bringing out both the hardness and humanity of the region.
The film follows 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer of All the Money in the World), a teenager who lives with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel of TV’s “Vikings”), in rural Oregon. Charley’s mother abandoned them, and when Ray struggles to support Charley, himself and his drinking, Charley goes looking for work. He finds it at a local stable, where a grouchy manager named Del (Steve Buscemi) puts him to work. Charley initially does odd jobs but ends up caring for a racehorse named Lean on Pete, and despite the advice of jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) he soon thinks of the horse as a friend. But with things getting worse at home, after Charley finds out what happens to thoroughbreds once they can no longer race, he goes on the run with his four-legged friend.
The fugitives search for a long-lost aunt in a faraway corner of Wyoming, and things get increasingly grim for boy and horse the further they go. This mixture of doomed adolescence and affection for animals recalls David Wroblewski’s 2008 novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which followed a boy on the run with his beloved dogs after things go wrong at home. While Sawtelle countered its characters’ troubles with magic and hope, Lean on Pete doubles down on despair.
The lack of sentimentality worked well for Haigh’s previous film, the marital drama 45 Years, its sadness in tune with the pains and betrayals of adults. Yet, in its focus on a boy and his horse, Lean on Pete can feels too brutal. While the story draws attention to the fact that real people are struggling, from the protagonists to the people they meet on the way, the weight of such suffering weighs heavily as the film progresses. Catharsis is hard to come by in this tale, which moves so slowly that it becomes almost unbearable, simply shifting between boredom and despair.
Still, young Charlie Plummer is quite the find – the camera rarely leaves him, and much of the story is told through what he doesn’t express. It’s a nuanced performance, told with both awkward youthful physicality and expressive eyes, and all the more impressive coming from an 18-year-old. And to the movie’s credit, the horse isn’t anthropomorphized. He behaves likes a horse and makes horse-like decisions, which grounds the film in reality and shows how audacious their journey is. Taking a brilliant, semi-human horse on a border-traversing journey would be one thing. But taking a real horse on the road, particularly without access to plentiful funds, is a near impossibility.
Haigh’s career thus far has focused on the quiet joys and tragedies of real lives. Lean on Pete is his most devastating portrayal yet, perhaps too much so for its own good. The movie will make audience members weep, but it would have been even more effective if Haigh had allowed some joy along with the tears.