The relationship between man and animals has been well-trodden territory for storytellers looking to explore a variety of subjects over the years. Premised around a teenage loner and an ageing race horse, Andrew Haigh’s fourth feature Lean on Pete may appear to be familiar on the surface, but through visually captivating scenery and a star-making performance from Charlie Plummer the end result is an emotionally devastating tale among the best films of 2018.
Adapted from the acclaimed novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin, 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer, All the Money in the World) lives alongside his father Ray (Travis Fimmel, Vikings) in Portland, Oregon – the latest in a host of moves the pair have made following the abandonment of the family matriarch years earlier. Finding work as a stable hand for seasoned horse trainer Del Montgomery (Steve Buschemi, The Death of Stalin), a connection develops between the good-natured teenager and aging sprint race horse Lean on Pete, but as Del and jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don’t Cry) stress given years of experience on the track, “he’s not a pet, it’s a horse”.
With Ray involved in an altercation requiring hospitalisation and Lean on Pete struggling to deliver on the track, the chance to gain stability alongside his Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott, The Wings of the Dove) leads Charley to head east for Wyoming. Forced to rely upon his own wits and the unknown good will of strangers, the ensuing journey forces the youngster into situations where a wrong turn could prove deadly.
At two hours in length the pacing of English filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s follow up to 2015’s highly acclaimed 45 Years may test the patience of viewers hoping for large scale actions to drive the plot forward, but in intentionally revealing the pressures faced by Charley with the emotional support he finds in his horse companion, the intimate nature of the film provides a great sense of tension to leave viewers uncertain as to how the pair will end up.
Gaining prominence last year as the kidnapped grandson of J. Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, teenager Charlie Plummer is emotionally wrenching in carrying the film with a performance comparable to Timothée Chalamet’s Best Actor nomination for Call Me By Your Name. Required to convey considerable depth with nuance in moments of intense drama that never seep into histrionics, his frailty as a young man needing to survive in a world in which stability is sought is laid bare in signs of big things to come from the young American actor.
Filled with supporting roles from established character actors who acquaint themselves with class, Travis Fimmel, Steve Buschemi and Chloë Sevigny help to carry the load early on, while when Plummer takes the reins during the second hour minimal scenes featuring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes) demonstrate the harshness of life for those largely ignored by society. Among the less prominent cast members, Teyah Hartley leaves a lasting impact on the film’s overall tone with a few minutes of screen time in her big screen debut, while Alison Elliott provides closure from the emotional turmoil during the closing scenes.
Photographed exquisitely by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (A War), the Oregon scenery provides the Danish cinematographer with vast landscapes of natural beauty to juxtapose the struggle faced by Charley and his equine companion during moments of intimate isolation, while former Haigh collaborator James Edward Barker scores proceedings to enhance the tender relationship between the pair with great subtlety.
Written and directed by Andrew Haigh Lean on Pete is far from a feel good time at the movies, but in avoiding melodrama the tender relationship depicted between Charlie Plummer’s memorable teenage outsider and his ageing stablemate companion encompass an emotional journey that ought to be seen. While the slower pacing and quieter tone may deter some viewers, the emotional heights captured rank among the finest produced in any film released this year.