LEAN ON PETE
Director: Andrew Haigh
Screenwriter: Andrew Haigh, based on the eponymous novel by Willy Vlautin.
Runtime: 121 mins.
Australian release date: 29 November 2018
Previewed at: Chauvel Cinema, Paddington, Sydney, on 29 November 2018.
The British director Andrew Haigh has an impressive track record judging by his previous feature films, namely Greek Pete (2009), Weekend (2011) and 45 Years (2015). The latter two were released theatrically in Australia and his first film was exhibited at both Melbourne Queer Screen and the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival in 2010. His films all deal with love and loneliness and now Haigh has expounded on yet another variation of these themes in his latest drama, Lean On Pete, on which he is credited, like with all his movies, as both director and screenwriter. He’s a writer of great understanding.
Lean On Pete begins in Portland, Oregon, where we find a lanky, quiet 15-year-old lad, Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer, in a very different role to All The Money In The World), moving into new premises with his deadbeat dad Ray (Travis Fimmel). They’ve recently arrived from Spokane, Washington, and Charley is yet to enrol in school. His womanising father attempts to impart some paternal advice, albeit slightly off-kilter, but Charley is pretty much left to his own devices. One day while out jogging, Charley meets a cranky horse-trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi), whose vocabulary features the constant use of four-letter words, and who offers him work with the remaining quarter horses in his much-reduced stable. That is, until they’re no longer able to perform at the track, at which point they’re sold, destined for the knackery. Charley is a novice to the game but he shows sensitivity and genuine concern for his new charges and also develops a friendship with a jaded female jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). When tragedy befalls the Thompson household, which coincides with the retiring of Lean On Pete, one of the horses in Charley’s care, he decides to take off across the American frontier with his four-legged friend. His plan is to find his estranged aunt, whom he believes lives somewhere in Wyoming, but he has no address or phone number for her. On the way he encounters various pockets of disenfranchised society, living as vicarious an existence as he is, some of whom show kindness to the lost boy and some… not so much. These are the kind of people who inhabit the margins that young Tom met in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, another movie shot around Portland that looked at the life of an isolated teenager.
The film is based on a 2010 novel by US author Willy Vlautin, himself a resident of Oregon. His books focus on life in the Pacific North-West and the people who live there. In this one, like Haigh in his films, he scrutinises loneliness, both within relationships and without them, and finding connection in unlikely places. The backwoods racetracks of the area are not places often examined but Vlautin (and Haigh) bring these places to life with great authenticity. The author explains, “I wrote Lean On Pete as a way of figuring out my relationship with horse racing, but it’s also about being 15-years-old - Charley’s age in the novel. He’s so close to having independence, whether it’s a job, a car or simply a voice, but he finds himself hitting the road in order to save this horse he loves.” Haigh adds, “Lean On Pete is a story about a kid trying to find stability and a sense of belonging. He wants to be cared about and cared for. As the story progresses, and he becomes less safe and less stable, it becomes a perilous journey about finding those essential things.” It’s a moving, powerful story told with compassion, never quite going where you think it might, a blessing in this age of derivative cinema. You can see why Haigh was attracted to it.
Lean On Pete was selected for competition at the 74th Venice Film Festival where Charlie Plummer won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Actor. It was a well-deserved accolade because his performance is compelling. He imbues Charley with quiet intelligence and great resilience while never letting us forget that, underneath his resolve, he’s a child desperately seeking love. Haigh’s films are some of the most interesting around and, as noted before, a director whose work is to be anticipated eagerly. You know you’ll be rewarded by a subject that you probably haven’t encountered before. How refreshing is that?