The western is a genre that may not appeal to all but is a distinctly American genre. Like jazz or southern gothic, the western feels as if it has been threaded into our DNA and culture. That makes it all the more interesting when an “outsider,” namely someone like Brit Andrew Haigh uses the medium to tell a story. The result is “Lean on Pete,” a story about a boy who seems at odds with everything about the Western. In doing so, Haigh’s rumination on America, safety, and securitybecomes an emotional trek that will resonate with many.
“Lean on Pete” begins as a story about a boy and his horse. Charley (Charlie Plummer) is going to high school and lives with his father Ray (Travis Fimmel). The teenager is looking to help his father out by getting a job and becomes fascinated with the world of horse racing. He begins to help out an older trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), who introduces him to a female jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). Charley begins to form a connection to Del’s quarter horse, Lean on Pete. Neither Bonnie nor Del think much of Pete, and despite warnings that horses are not pets, Charley begins to grow close to Pete. When Del is forced to sell Pete, Charley runs off with Pete.
It’s sometimes difficult to write about films that contain emotional plots, especially if that emotion hits close to home. In many ways, Fimmel’s portrayal of Ray wrang true to my own experiences with my father. While Ray undeniably cares for Charley, he puts himself in dangerous situations that make him unable to provide the safety or security we usually expect of fatherhood. When Ray dies suddenly and without Charley’s knowledge, the search for security and love is one that feels authentic and rich. This propels the story forward and ultimately determines your feelings towards the film as a whole.
Regardless of how you feel about the narrative, Plummer is the actor to watch. He is devastating as Charley in what might be mistaken for a coming-of-age story. However, Charley is not worried about identity. He’s not worried about who he will become. He’s worried about survival and finding family. Plummer’s ability to hold your attention, even as he monologues to a horse, is next level performance. Plummer should be on your radar as one of the bright young stars in Hollywood, who will likely only get better in time.
The other star here is Haigh, who uses the American landscape to set up thematic questions throughout the film. While Charley literally roams the wilderness to find his aunt, you question if he will ever find his way. The deserts of the American west are gorgeous, and his ability to let Charley stop in on small parties along the way helps liven up the world. He could stop at any point, and Charley and Pete could be happy. Yet none of these would be home. That makes his odyssey worth exploring, and worth the journey. Haigh’s direction is gorgeous, and with Magnus Joenck‘s excellent cinematography, should be one of the best stories about America this year.
Overall, “Lean on Pete” is not for everyone. It ebbs and flows, and gets caught in the quiet moments. The pacing may seem off to some, and for others, it will be too slow. For me, this film was a slow meditation on our search for belonging and our search for love. As the film begins to wrap up, Charley has a breakdown. He questions everything he’s done, and questions his belonging. He lets us know that he recognizes the good and bad he’s done and that his actions will haunt him forever. Yet the final message of the film will leave you breathless. Thanks to Haigh and the incredible crew, this slow-burn should be a film you catch in 2018.