Responsible for two of the most notable British films of the past decade in Weekend and 45 Years, Andrew Haigh treads that well worn path across the Atlantic for his latest work, Lean on Pete. A film about America of the kind often produced by foreigners seduced by the cinematographic possibilities of its vast open landscapes and the narrative possibilities of the road — see Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas for the classic example and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey for one of the most recent — Haigh’s latest tells the tragedy of a boy and his horse, of broken social systems and the kindness, or otherwise, of strangers.
Based upon the novel by Willy Vlautin, Charlie Plummer stars as Charley, a resourceful 15-year-old boy living with his single father in the Pacific Northwest, who takes a job working as a stable hand to earn some extra cash. The plot tracks Charley as he forms a bond with a racehorse named Lean on Pete, and for a brief time, finds something of a surrogate family in Steve Buscemi’s washed-up stable owner and Chloë Sevigny’s troubled jockey. When Lean on Pete stops winning and looks glue factory-bound, Charley intervenes and escapes with the horse onto the open road.
As a modern day western, Lean on Pete has more in common with the spare poetry of the films of Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women) than any of the genre’s more explosive touchstones. Plummer is impressive in a quiet, withdrawn role, helped in no small part by his director’s skill at depicting the interiority of his characters. Given his outsider status, Haigh remains alert to the dangers of exploiting or sentimentalising this sojourn into the margins of American society; maintaining a tough, but deeply lyrical tone as he settles into the story’s bleak rhythms.