Lean on Pete flows with such gentle beauty that it may be hard to grasp precisely what it’s about or where it’s going. But the power of writer-director Andrew Haigh’s sublime drama is that it can support myriad interpretations while remaining teasingly mysterious—like its main character, it’s always just a bit out of reach, constantly enticing us to look closer.
Based on Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel, the movie is a smashing introduction to Charlie Plummer, who was the kidnapped John Paul Getty III in last year’s All the Money in the World. Here, he plays Charley Thompson, a 15-year-old living with his drinking, backslapping dad (Travis Fimmel) in Portland. Charley has a sweet face and a soft-spoken manner—when he talks, the last few words evaporate into the air, as if he’s too shy to even be bold enough to enunciate—but early on, we get a sense that there’s a craftiness underneath that demeanor. The first indication is his willingness to lie about his age to Del (Steve Buscemi), a craggy horse owner who reluctantly takes him on as a caretaker for his elderly racehorse Lean on Pete. Charley doesn’t know a thing about horses, but he’s anxious to find something to do now that he’s in a new town with his father, their reasons for leaving Spokane unspecified but clearly dispiriting.
The first half of Lean on Pete is devoted to Charley’s time with Del, Pete and a jockey named Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) who’s known Del for two decades. Charley doesn’t talk much—which suits Del just fine, since he doesn’t feel much like being a mentor—but once the boy’s dad lands in the hospital, he begins bonding with this old horse who, like him, is a bit lost. Haigh, who previously made two subtle love stories in Weekend and 45 Years, focuses on the growing rapport between teenager and animal, both of them stoic and soulful, keeping their troubles to themselves. Bonnie, a veteran of the racetrack, tries to impress upon Charley that he shouldn’t get attached to Pete—he’s not a pet, she warns him. The sensitive young man doesn’t listen, and so he sets himself up for heartbreak as Del inches closer to the inevitable moment when he’ll have to sell the horse, dooming Pete to the glue factory.
Eventually, Lean on Pete will offer piecemeal hints about Charley’s past, fleshing out its central character with an easygoing confidence. It takes just a few interactions between Charley and his dad, who’s far more outgoing and macho, to glean the life the two men have shared. In addition, there are casual references to Charley’s aunt, once close but now distant, and a mother who walked out inexplicably. And we soon learn that the kid has moved around a lot, which has taught him how to cope and adapt. Sometimes, that’s meant lying to an adult about his age to get a job, but as the film rolls along, Charley’s survival instincts become increasingly apparent, constantly upending our preconceived notions of this timid boy.
Plummer’s remarkably withholding performance leaves Charley somewhat opaque, and as a result, the teenager’s concerned mumblings about the horse’s well-being become a movingly inarticulate expression of a deep longing within him—for a community, for a safe place. He’s in no financial position to buy the horse, but he can’t bear the thought of anything happening to him, either. In a pivotal moment, the indecisive young man will have to act.
Familiar narrative tropes emerge in Lean on Pete: the boy-and-his-dog drama, the coming-of-age story, the father-and-son character piece, the road movie. Haigh breezes past them all, seeking something more elliptical in this deceptively slim story. With the patience and minimalist command of a Kelly Reichardt, he doesn’t dictate where his film goes, seemingly letting Charley’s restlessness call the shots. The boy’s journey gathers force and poignancy as it moves forward, and the more we understand about Charley the more unknowable he becomes. Along the way, we meet other people and see other worlds—the life of young military veterans, the reality of homelessness, the grind of the low-rent racing circuit—but Haigh views it all with the same unassuming compassion we see in Charley’s quiet eyes. There are lots of unhappy, lonely individuals in Lean on Pete: Is Charley drawn to them, or are they drawn to him?
Plummer is at the center of the story, but he brings a compelling meekness to the character. Charley shrinks from view, but the permanently melancholy look on his face keeps us caring. He’s not someone who vents about his problems—as his dad explains to him at the outset, they don’t need anybody—but the actor reveals how years of disappointment and neglect have taken their toll on Charley. Lean on Pete runs two hours, and we need the time to fully register the subtle transformation that happens within the character. It may be shocking where Charley ends up in comparison to where he started, but, in hindsight, the signs were there all along, expertly marked out by Plummer and Haigh.
The naturalness of the supporting cast only bolsters Lean on Pete’s almost subliminal reverie on diminished expectations and silent perseverance. Buscemi plays Del with an abundance of piss and vinegar, an unromantic just trying to cobble together a living in a miserable vocation. Sevigny is equally spare, her character a little more sympathetic to the moony Charley but nonetheless a pragmatist who’s come to expect very little from life. Haigh never condescends to his beaten-down characters, shooting his film with unfussy, widescreen simplicity. Lean on Pete is a tough little story about unlucky people making do with their circumstance. Everyone around Charley has made peace with their fate—it’s this boy’s strength (and, ultimately, maybe his downfall) that he’s too young to have gotten there yet.
Director: Andrew Haigh
Writers: Andrew Haigh (screenplay); Willy Vlautin (book)
Starring: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Zahn
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.