Rarely have films ever made me cry for two hours straight, but Lean on Pete arrives like a stampede to join that very short list. I saw Lean on Pete last year at London Film Festival and director Andrew Haigh was at the screening for a Q&A. The very first question (or statement rather) was from a woman who did nothing but berate the film for its representation of America. I was seething — did we even watch the same film? Lean on Pete is devastating. It’s a sensitive portrayal of lower-class America with a heartbreaking performance from Charlie Plummer. Andrew Haigh’s films always destroy me, and this one is no different.
Lean on Pete is the horse in question, a racehorse long past its prime and destined to be sold for slaughter. The only thing standing in the way however is 16-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) who refuses to let this horse die. Charley is working for Del (Steve Buscemi), also past his prime and exasperated with the world of horses, he passes on his wisdom to naive little Charley while providing odd jobs. Pete’s rider is Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a cynical jockey on the verge of giving it up altogether. “There are only so many times you can fall off a horse and get up,” she says. Her reminders that Lean on Pete is just a horse, not a pet, fall on deaf ears — in a world where Charley has no one (his mother abandoned him and his father is largely absent, much preferring to jump from girlfriend to girlfriend) Pete is his one loyal friend.
To save both of them from their own unfortunate fates, Charley takes Pete on a search to find his aunt in another state, and I’m only exaggerating a little bit when I say the film finds a million ways to crush your heart. In rural America, it’s one boy and his horse against the world — and the world isn’t kind. Andrew Haigh employs atmospheric long shots that accentuate Charley’s loneliness with majestic subtlety. The film is brutal, but beautiful — and I suppose that rings a bit true to life as well. Haigh finds poeticism in the wide open spaces of the American frontier, much like Andrea Arnold did so wonderfully in American Honey.
The film is brutal in that it forces you to stay with Charley as he faces every hurdle from losing gas to growing hungry. Charlie Plummer is expressive but restrained, as the world continues to batter him, he maintains the child-like innocence of someone who assumes the best from others until it’s too late — it’s quietly shattering. The entire film falls on Plummer’s shoulders and he carries it with ease. This may be premature but after two watches I’m certain that Lean on Pete is one of the best films of the year. Andrew Haigh might not be American, but he explores the country with piercing wisdom and the delicate touch of someone who posesses overflowing empathy.
Lean on Pete will be released in the US on the 30th March 2018 and in the UK on the 4th May 2018. You can read the rest of our Glasgow Film Festival coverage here.