Being in love with the magic of the movies means, for this reviewer, always hoping to be surprised in a cinema. Lean on Pete is unquestionably a surprising journey, as well as a most memorable and worthwhile one.
The poster shot of a boy and a horse might give you the impression of something cozy and comfortable, maybe even predictable, sentimental, or complacent. Nothing could be further from the bracing reality of Lean on Pete. It’s the story of Charley, a young man in his mid-teens, with clear possession of a nascent potential for achievement in the world, but lacking the immediate sources of support, opportunity, and encouragement that many of us take merely for granted.
There seems to be little money or stability in this household; the sole parent is a father whose love for Charley may be genuine in its own way, but whose sense of responsibility and maturity appears significantly stunted. A propensity for making the most of his limited circumstances – by running the desolate streets of his neighbourhood in the morning – leads Charley into casual employment with a gruff horse trainer and veteran of the small-time racing circuit. Could this be the start of a promising future for the boy…?
Exactly where the narrative (adapted by director Andrew Haigh from a novel by Willy Vlautin) takes Charley from there is not for this reviewer to reveal.. Lean on Pete (titled after the horse that our hero grows attached to) is both a character study and a social portrait of one segment of the United States not much seen in mainstream cinema. Charley’s path towards self-reliance will take him through episodes of heartbreak and betrayal, compassion and determination, painful discovery, and unexpected forgiveness. The beautiful-but-harsh landscapes of the American heartland are strikingly photographed in a manner both evocative and unfussy.
Andrew Haigh’s previous writing and directing work on screen (Weekend; 45 Years) has marked him out as a humanist of piercing intelligence, with a keen eye for detail, as well as the patience to let his characters and their stories develop naturally, with room for nuance and subtlety. Lean on Pete allows its protagonist to be young and reckless, as we all once were to a degree. In a quite remarkable performance by Charlie Plummer, the hero finds that sometimes he must behave in decidedly unheroic ways to ensure survival for himself and the only friend he has left in the world. Plummer is clearly a young actor to watch out for in the future.
If what you seek is a story that will grip the emotions and wring them out, then this is the journey to embark on – and journey is the right word. Despite being a seemingly modest independent production, the filmmakers behind Lean on Pete possess enormous levels of vision, commitment, and heart, and have put them vividly on the screen for us.
Check out the official website here.