With Weekend and 45 Years, British writer-director Andrew Haigh told small stories of the connections between just two people. As he moves to the US with Lean on Pete, he expands his scope to a road trip across three vast American states and alters his focus to centre not a purely human relationship, but of that between a boy and a knackered old race horse. Attempting to squeeze three films into one, and sometimes getting distracted by the landscape’s sheer scale, the usual growing pains of a Brit’s first American movie are evident in Lean on Pete, but the sincerity with which Haigh tells his story elevates it past its faults.
Newcomer Charlie Plummer plays Charley Thompson, an exceedingly soft-spoken 15 year old who’s recently moved to Oregon for his dad’s (Travis Fimmel) work. Not yet enrolled in any local schools, he spends his days running, and falls into a job at a local race track, working cash in hand for horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi, brilliantly introduced by yelling ‘fucking cocksucker’ from off screen). This is the first of Lean on Pete’s three films, a refreshingly upbeat look at working class itinerancy that centres on the superbly drawn dynamic between Charley and his dad, Ray.
A man with a committedly chaotic life, Ray is not an ideal parent, but his love and care for Charley is genuine and reciprocated. Having a single dad get along this well with his teenage son without any cheap conflicts between the two is a cinematic rarity, one that is very comforting to bear witness to. As Charley grows more attached to Pete, one of Del’s horses, though, Haigh pivots into a touching boy-and-his-pet story. Del and his star jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) warn Charley against this, recommending that he treat Pete more as an expendable employee than a friend.
Clearly, both Del and Bonnie have this advice to give after having their hearts broken by doomed horses, many years ago, but as with a lot of Lean on Pete’s subtle backstories, this fact is never dwelt upon, providing layers to the supporting cast without becoming a distraction. The film is packed enough as it is, especially once it enters its final and least focused third. After tragedy strikes Charley’s life, he is so shocked and grief-stricken that all he can think to do is run, and so begins an uneven but often powerful final third.
It’s a bold gamble, especially as it means leaving behind the trifecta of superb performances by Fimmel, Buscemi, and Sevigny (every story is told entirely from Charley’s point of view), and it’s one that doesn’t always pay off. Haigh bites off more than he can chew as Charley’s journey takes him through three states worth of desert plains before reaching built-up civilisation, where an exploration of urban homelessness feels a little undercooked. But that doesn’t stop there from being some deeply affecting individual moments in this segment, like a chance encounter with two kind-hearted veterans who shelter Charley in the desert, and a terrifying sequence in which a spooked Pete tries to bolt.
As a first foray into the US, Lean on Pete is a flawed, dust-caked triumph, and promises truly great things to come from Haigh in this environment. Perhaps a stronger focus on just one of its many elements would have made for a more solid film, but each distinct chapter (its origins as a novel, by Willy Vlautin, become increasingly obvious) brings its own sort of melancholy, adding up to a tremendously sad but compelling coming of age tale.