What tremendous lengths we go to in order to combat the impending sense of loneliness. That lingering sense of empty space along with the mechanisms of a coming of age story round out director Andrew Haigh’s latest feature film. Introspective, playing off the boy and his horse motifs and overwhelming itself with an aggressive sense of melancholy, Lean On Pete is a tone poem on the loss of innocence and the dire, animalistic need to carry on in the face of adversary.
The film follows fifteen year old Charley (Charlie Plummer) who lives with his single father (Travis Fimmel). Leaning over the poverty line – where a decent meal feels extravagant and a steady roof to sleep under is a luxury – Charley is eager to find work to help sustain him and his father so that they can stay in their new home which leads him to a washed-up horse trainer (Steve Buscemi), his jockey (Chloë Sevigny) and of course, the race horse, Lean on Pete. Despite being warned countless times to not to treat the animal as if he were a pet, his need for companionship leads to a bond forming. When tragedy strikes and Charley’s universe implodes, he grasps further to the harsh tangibility of the world around him.
Written by Haigh and based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, the film is meditative and heart-wrenching, as Charley is continually let down by the people around him, the people that, in an ideal world, would be caring for a displaced 15 year old. Resourceful and cynical in a way kids who grow up too fast are taught to be, he approaches the world delicately, but cautious, a wild animal surveying its surrounding.
Haigh’s love for day to day redundancies of his characters lives have played throughout all of his films, ready to catch a truly human, in between moment, than a moment that’s further orchestrated and inauthentic. He doesn’t just want the revelation or the breakdown, he wants to capture each agonizing moment that leads up to it. Terrible things happen in this film and each time you think Charley has been dealt a bad hand things seemingly grow worse but despite this we’re able to feel how heartfelt it is, how much affection is there for the characters and their worlds. There’s such care taken for all of them so that each beat is met with the viewers anxious eyes as we hold out hope that a greener pasture lays on the other side of such sadness.
The character work is remarkable. Charley Thompson is so used to looking after himself that he isn’t able to identify what has truly belabored his adolescence and young adulthood: neglect. His father loves him, without question, but is ill equipped to take care of him and Charley see’s only the affection. However, he also is far from naive, possessing keen, if feral, survival instincts. It’s that tough but calloused exterior with the vulnerable belief in the adults that infiltrate his life that make him such a remarkable and tragic character. Similarly, his father played by Fimmel is just as intriguing as a man who seems to know his flaws but presses on anyway, trying to be there for his son in any way he’s capable, while Buscemi dons the wear and tear of his characters life so readily on his face, playing affably cantankerous so effortlessly that when his mood shifts you feel personally affronted.
But it’s Plummer that makes a lasting impression as Charley, so stoic in one moment and an open book in the next, playing the character as someone who is so determined to put up a front of being in control that he doesn’t realize how transparent he actually is. It’s a layered performance and one where no matter the situations he finds himself in, we’re also there, wringing our hands over worry for this character.
The imagery evokes the feeling of staring upon a portrait, so artistically composed to render the viewer speechless. Haigh and cinematographer Magnus Joenck get to play with composition, jumping from the gritty, downtrodden reality of Charley’s home life, to the rough and tumble atmosphere of the race tracks he shadows to the vast, alluring and dangerous emptiness of the plans in which he rests. One image in particular, as Charley’s face slowly fades away and morphs into the sunset is so superb it will seer itself into your memory. That, ultimately, is Haigh and Joenck’s goal, to create imagery so lasting and so emotive that it becomes nearly impossible to shake them.
The film doesn’t have a distinct or obvious message and it’s themes about finding family where you can is only partially applicable. In one moment of the film, Charley bemoans the idea of a friend and his family seeing him how he is now, his pride more important than his personal safety and it’s a heart achingly childish but honest thing to say. At it’s core, Lean On Pete is more than a story about a boys bond with his pet, it’s about his perception of himself being warped, to the point where his only thought is to see the day through, to press on because that’s all he can do. It’s a coming of age story without the sweet middle or the empty placating. It’s a story that in equal measures is about the treachery of loss of youth and the importance of retaining some youthful hope. It’s all about duality and the ability to tell the same story with streamlined meanings. That, plus a remarkable central performance, is what makes Lean On Pete so hauntingly beautiful.