What reads on the surface like an archetypal tale of a boy and his horse becomes an affecting snapshot of the contemporary American underclass in Andrew Haigh's lovely, slow-burning drama Lean on Pete. Poverty and broken families are less a subject of this delicate film than an integral part of its texture. Adapted from the novel by writer-musician Willy Vlautin, this is a compassionately observed story told with unimpeachable naturalism and without a grain of sentimentality, propelled by a remarkable performance from Charlie Plummer that's both internalized and emotionally raw.
The triple launch platform of Venice, Telluride and Toronto festival slots should help build critical momentum for A24 to find a discerning audience for this modest yet beautifully crafted feature.
Set in Oregon and, in the sauntering developments that follow, in cross-country locations en route to Wyoming, this melancholy vision of the New West is something of a departure for Haigh. But the common element in the British writer-director's work is his nuanced exploration of connections and the unexpected paths they can take. That applies whether it's a gay hookup that suddenly yields deeper possibilities in Weekend; a youthful love, literally thawed from the past to pierce the present and call an entire marriage into question in 45 Years; or the tricky terrain of commitment navigated by three gay San Francisco men and their friends in the HBO series and wrap-up movie Looking.
In Lean on Pete, the lingering connection that exerts a strong hold over 15-year-old Charley (Plummer) is his childhood memory of an estranged aunt, the closest thing to a loving maternal figure he has ever known. But even more central to the story is Charley's bond with the aging quarter horse whose name gives the film its title, a gentle nag that Charley is determined to save from the slaughterhouse once it has been run into the ground by its shady owner.
That plot could have provided the bones of a conventional coming-of-age family film about the sustaining warmth found by a lonely boy in an unlikely friend. But Haigh's sensitive take on the material ends up being more akin to, say, Kelly Reichardt's almost unbearably poignant Wendy and Lucy, a quiet masterwork about the comforts of animal companionship on the outer fringes of economic and emotional desolation. There also are echoes of another distinctive Oregon movie with a road component, Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho.
Like those films, Lean on Pete begins in the Pacific Northwest, soon after Charley and his single father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), have relocated from Spokane, Wash., to a dump of a house in Portland in their latest bid for a fresh start. Ray in his rough-edged way is a caring dad, but he's also an overgrown kid, too willingly distracted by beer and women to offer a stable environment. Charley's mother exited their lives early on, and Ray's friction with the kid's beloved Aunt Margy caused them to sever ties years earlier.
Indie-film stalwart Amy Seimetz makes a brief appearance in the opening as a married secretary from Ray's warehouse job, whose fling with him will have turbulent consequences.
Meanwhile, Charley, a runner who dreams of getting back on the football team at a new school, is drawn to Portland Meadows racetrack. Irascible horse owner Del (Steve Buscemi) gives him work tending the animals and preparing them for races, also offering a cranky kind of camaraderie that makes him pass for an avuncular figure. The boy proves a natural, establishing a special rapport with five-year-old Lean on Pete, whose track days are winding down, just like the low-end racing circuit on which he competes. Jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), while remaining evasive about Del's dodgy professional methods, warns Charley not to get too attached to the horse: "You can't think of them as pets. They lose too much, they get fired."
But as his home life deteriorates and his father's absence leaves him fending for himself, Charley's affection for the animal takes on almost primal importance. (It's to Haigh’s credit that he conveys this profound bond with a minimum of pointed cutaways to the soulful-eyed steed.) When Pete's latest loss seals Del's decision to sell the injured horse, Charley embarks on an impulsive and often perilous course of action to save him.
With the shift in locations as Charley sets out to find Aunt Margy, Danish cinematographer Magnus Jonck's canvas opens up from the muted tones of the city to the richer colors and wide-open, epic landscapes of the interior, an American West whose hardships and threats are vastly different to those of lore. Vlautin's 2010 novel drew comparison to literary portraits of disenfranchised drifters by Steinbeck and Denis Johnson, and Haigh's pared-down style here echoes that unforced affinity for down-on-their luck protagonists in hardscrabble existences. Deft use of composer James Edward Barker's understated score also enhances the minimalist dramatic means.
One of the key strengths of the film is its small windows into human need and kindness — the intuitive questioning of a waitress on whom Charley has pulled a dine-and-dash; the boy's sympathetic exchanges with a sad girl he meets along the way, stuck in a thankless existence with her abusive grandfather; the simple act of payment for an honest day's labor when Charley finances his journey by joining the itinerant Mexican workforce. Haigh has a knack for infusing these humane moments with unspoken feeling, via subtle visual details and dialogue that never feels too written.
Haigh's script shows no need to overemphasize the precarious balance from which an at-risk youth can tumble into abandonment, homelessness, danger and violence, and yet from the start, the stakes for Charley — and by extension, for a whole class of vulnerable Americans just like him — are all too real. That aspect is addressed head-on in a section late in the action when he encounters the street-smart Silver (Steve Zahn) at a food program for the homeless, and the easygoing stranger's convivial solidarity hides a streak of self-serving cunning.
There's not a false note in the performances. Neither the screenplay nor Fimmel sugarcoat Ray's fundamental weaknesses as a father and provider, and yet in his few brief scenes he shapes an appealing mess of a guy, proud of his son's resourcefulness. In a similar way, Sevigny's sleepy-eyed, seen-it-all detachment and Bonnie's willingness to shrug off Del's disreputable tactics don't preclude her genuine, big-sisterly affection for Charley. And Buscemi, while probably nobody's idea of a grizzled horseman, imbues the foul-mouthed character with an amusing sourness and a begrudging concern for Charley that offset Del's less admirable qualities.
The sizable heart of the movie though is Plummer's resilient Charley, and among its most pleasurable stretches are the long one-way conversations of the boy with Pete, in which he unpacks details of his life up to that point, exposing his longing for a more complete family, and his shame at being reduced to such desperation. Those scenes are tender and poetic, never cute. Plummer gives an unfailingly honest performance made all the more moving by its restraint, right up to the redemptive notes of the final scenes. The moments when Charley absorbs shock or tragedy, by contrast, are quite wrenching in their emotional power.
As is invariably the case with Haigh's work, the director accompanies the closing frames with an impeccable song choice that is a perfect tonal distillation of experience accumulated and to come. Here, it's neo-folk artist Bonnie Prince Billy's dreamy cover of the R. Kelly hit "The World's Greatest," aptly followed over the end credits by a contemplative ballad from writer Vlautin's alt-country band Richmond Fontaine.
Production company: The Bureau
Cast: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Zahn, Justin Rain, Lewis Pullman, Bob Olin, Teyah Hartley, Kurt Conroyd, Alison Elliott, Rachael Perrell Fosket, Jason Rouse, Amy Seimetz
Director-screenwriter: Andrew Haigh, based on the novel by Willy Vlautin
Producer: Tristan Goligher
Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Ben Roberts, Daniel Battsek, Sam Lavendar, David Kosse, Vincent Gadelle, Darren Demetre
Director of photography: Magnus Jonck
Production designer: Ryan Warren Smith
Costume designer: Julie Carnahan
Music: James Edward Barker
Editor: Jonathan Alberts
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Rated R; 122 minutes