A story about a boy and his horse is nothing original, but one which uses this premise to explore adolescence, loneliness and poverty simultaneously is something fresh. “Lean on Pete” is the latest film from emerging writer-director Andrew Haigh (“45 Years”) and it leaves viewers with a bittersweet sadness that’s hard to shake long after leaving the theater.
“Lean on Pete” tells the story of Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer), a quiet teenager living with his single father who finds work with Del (Steve Buscemi) and one of his aging race horses, Lean on Pete. Charley helps Del take care of his horses and travels to races with him. When Charley overhears Lean on Pete is going to be sent to Mexico for slaughter due to his age and bad legs, he sets off on a cross-country journey with the horse to find a new home.
With shades of director Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” (1984) in its style and feel, “Lean on Pete” doesn’t beg for its audience’s emotion. The film takes its time with Charley’s story, allowing space for viewers to breathe between its heavy moments. Haigh respects his audience’s intelligence and patience and doesn’t overwrite scenes with dialogue where silence can say just as much.
So much of the film’s silence is given to Charley, whose shy, slightly awkward demeanor is played perfectly by the powerhouse, 18-year-old actor Plummer. Despite fantastic supporting performances from Buscemi (“Fargo”) and Chloë Sevigny (“American Horror Story”), Plummer carries the film every time he’s on screen, usually alone.
Haigh makes it clear whose story “Lean on Pete” is by not allowing the film to follow any other characters longer than when they interact with Charley. Plummer’s performance aches with an overwhelming sadness he can’t — or refuses — to show. Throughout the film, there are numerous times Charley has to act older than he is — usually by necessity.
“Lean on Pete” opens with Charley jogging. He doesn’t look dressed for a jog, and viewers are unaware of his actions until he starts running. As the film goes on, the act of running becomes a motif unto itself, with Charley constantly running away from things in his life. Haigh throws countless obstacles Charley’s way with endless reasons for him to give up, but he doesn’t. He keeps on keeping on in the face of them all.
On a deeper level, “Lean on Pete” explores important issues in America today, namely the younger, often forgotten sect of the country’s homeless population. The film shows how easily one can slip into homelessness because of external factors completely out of his or her control. It shines a light on the circumstances that have led people struggling with homelessness to their current state and dares audiences not to empathize with them and not have pride in even their smallest accomplishments. By the end of its runtime, “Lean on Pete” might win over even the most close-minded viewers with its heartbreaking, honest and understated poignancy.
“Lean on Pete” is now playing in theaters nationwide.