James Rosario is a writer, filmmaker, and musician based in the Asheville, NC area. His record label, Bigger Boat Records, releases...
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Reviewed by James Rosario on May 2, 2018
The trailer for Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete suggests it’s a different film than it turns out to be. This is a good thing. We would be led to believe that this is a coming of age story about a boy who finds salvation and redemption while caring for a down-and-out racehorse. It certainly has many of the trappings of a typical “boy and his horse” movie (the comparisons to 1979’s The Black Stallion are easier to make in the trailer that in the film itself), but, really, it’s about disappointing and ineffectual parental figures. I didn’t see that coming.
Charley (Charlie Plummer) meets a steady stream of surrogate parents throughout the film—each one more disappointing than the last. First, his father (a carouser and a ladies’ man who is content to live in a roach infested apartment) gets himself in trouble he can’t get out of. Since his mother left when he was young, he finds himself quite alone. This pushes Charley into the world of Del and Bonnie (Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny), a horse trainer and jockey on a low-end racing circuit. They become easy stand-ins for Charley’s birth parents, as they seem caring and willing to teach him their trade.
It’s here that Charley meets Lean on Pete, an aging race horse who doesn’t have many races left in him. A quick and emotional bond is formed between boy and horse, until the day Del decides to sell him. Del’s cruelty and Bonnie’s indifference to the life of Pete is brief but striking. It’s a gut punch, and it takes Charley by surprise. He thought he’d found a new family, but is, once again, disappointed. Before we can even think about it, he’s stolen the horse and is headed for Wyoming to find his estranged aunt Margy (Allison Elliot). It’s in the rest of the film that Lean on Pete diverts from what the trailer would have us think the film is about.
As Charley meets people along the way, we learn more about him and the type of person he is. With the world of horse racing behind him and the desert in front, Lean on Pete becomes a different film. Gone is The Black Stallion, being replaced by a heavy dose of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999). Charley remains mostly silent as those around him tell their stories—and through them, Charley is revealed. There’s the pair of PTSD soldiers who are clearly affected by their tours of duty, but play it off as a joke, the grandfather who verbally abuses his granddaughter (and goads the soldiers into telling war stories, then doesn’t like what he hears), and others—all help to shed light on who Charley is, and what he's searching for.
There’s more parental surrogates in Silver and Martha (Steve Zahn and Rachael Perrell Fosket) who invite Charley to stay with them in their broken-down RV. Just when things start to look up, they come right back down, and Charley is forced to rely on his resiliency once again. In the end, he’s lost everything, but possibly found just what he was looking for.
I liked Lean on Pete. The potential for overdone melodrama was a concern, but proved to be a non-issue. The misleading trailer does a service to what the film accomplishes. It’s a misdirection that pays off, even if the film wanders aimlessly for a bit too long. Charlie Plummer carries the film, but the supporting cast pulls their weight as well. Strangely, and I’m surprised I’m saying this, but Sevigny may be the weak link. She’s not given a lot of screen time, but her performance seems phoned-in. Buscemi and Zahn are near perfect in their roles as father figures able to turn on a dime. I was also struck by the cinematography by Magnus Joenck. I’m so used to seeing hand-held cameras as a stand-in for artistry that it’s refreshing to see someone capable of holding still for a while. Young cinematographers of the world take note: tripods are a good thing every now and again.
Lean on Pete isn’t a mean movie, but its cruelty is real. Charley’s search for a family ends up in disappointment time and again, but he stays the course. He only momentarily lets the harshness of his situation and the world get to him. The film gets lost occasionally, but, like Charley, it gets there in the end.
Lean on Pete opens Friday, May 4, 2018 at Fine Arts Theatre.
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