Scruffy name aside, Andrew Haigh’s deeply felt and heartstring-plucking Lean on Pete is a sorrowful spirit trip through America’s discarded backcountry where a boy wants desperately for belonging. Haigh’s emotionally draining adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel of the same name is of the traumatic animal movie ilk. Not for the weak-spirited, the film from A24 constantly tests the resolve of its protagonist, putting him in increasingly difficult circumstances. Even the life of the titular Lean on Pete, a racehorse on his last leg, lies under constant threat as his unsympathetic owner makes passing threats of sending him off to the glue factory with all the remorse of stepping on a bug.
Haigh’s fourth feature film luxuriates in trauma but trots a fine line, rarely dipping into cheap sentimentality while keeping it a blubbery, tissue box affair from damn near the first scene. A major credit is extended to the fine performances littered throughout the film, with every character, regardless of how minuscule their screen time, giving new context and weight to the drama unfolding.
Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World) is outstanding in the central role of Charley. Charley is a kindhearted and determined forget-me-not, a gentle spirit surrounded by tough circumstances. Plummer captures the many angles of Charley – his well-concealed anguish, his misplaced optimism, his tireless gumption – with deeply affecting skill. Desperate but too proud to plead, Charley seeks some semblance of regularity. His dad (a greasy, bug-eyed Travis Fimmel), often drunk on cheap lite beer, dragging him from city to city with little to show for it, is far from a role model. Charley may wake up each morning with a long distance run but we never get the impression that he’s running away so much as he’s running towards something. Something unknown. Perhaps unknowable. He’s searching for home.
When Charley discovers a rundown stable on an old stretch of highway not too far from his most recent crash pad, he lands a gig tending to Del’s (a suitably worn Steve Buscemi) stock of horses. As his home life comes crashing down around him, Charley withdraws from the humans in his life, finding a friend in the aged American Quarter Horse, a no-longer-sought-after breed known for short sprints, Lean on Pete (Pete for short), who becomes his mute confidante and misfitted friend. Del will have none of it, reminding Charley that the horses “Are not pets” with a stern look. Del might be a fair man – a man of his circumstance – but he’s also as calloused as a rancher’s hand and with him, Haigh explores the death of the American Dream.
This is a guy who took to horse racing for passion – “I used to love horses, now I can’t even stand the smell of them” – and took one too many shortcuts along the way. Secretly doping his animals to win the local circuits and subsequently sending them off to be “harvested” in Mexico when they’re no longer useful on the tracks, we see how time has twisted and distorted this man into a vendor of flesh. He reeks of desperation, as does most of the locales that he takes Charley to. Before Pete can be sold off, Charley flees with the animal, making off towards something to call a home.
Along his journey, Charley meets new friend and foe, including the warm but jaded jockey Bonnie played by Chloë Sevigny with a suggestion of maternal instinct, an erratic homeless man named Silver played with fearsome unpredictability by Steven Zahn and some welcoming Iraq War veterans on their middle-of-nowhere ranch. Lean on Pete charters an odyssey through unpopulated stretches of flyover America, filling the void with complex characters and tragic scenery, but seeking to understand both the character’s emotional journey and the lands through which he travels.
Haigh’s portrait of America isn’t particularly flattering and can frequently be hard to swallow. Languishing, capitalist, fundamentally broken, this is a land mired in Trumpian decay. But it’s also a thing of secret beauty and sneaking kindness. Haigh and cinematography Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (A War) capture the feral majesty of the wilderness. Be it Charley and Pete sharing a drink from a liberated river or overlooking a violent sun setting over a bruise of pink sky, you feel the weight of the natural and human world collide with Charley and his horse at the epicenter of the fundamental American struggle for success and belonging.
CONCLUSION: Be warned, this well-acted and touching equestrian drama has no shortage of ugly-cry-inducing moments; it also serves as powerful commentary on dismantled American life and land. Charlie Plummer is simply stunning.