Film Review: Lean On Pete

Writer-director Andrew Haigh's first film set in the American West includes a cast of itinerant characters eking out a living, and one lonely young man who longs for stability.
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Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is about a teenage boy and is set in America’s West and Pacific Northwest. The movie is not very different from the writer-director’s 45 Years (2015), the story of an aging British couple who are planning their 45th wedding anniversary. Both center on subtle and not-so-subtle betrayals. Some are suffered at the hands of loved ones, and the others derive from a tacit acceptance of cultural values that enshrine, in the case of 45 Years, the institution of marriage, and in Lean on Pete, the rugged self-determination that informs Americans’ views of their heritage.

The wife in 45 Years discovers her husband’s deceit that at first appears to be little more than a sin of omission. Later, it profoundly alters Kate’s (Charlotte Rampling) memories of her married life. In the end, the ritual celebration of a wedding anniversary with friends, the party that the couple had put off for five years because of Geoff’s (Tom Courtenay) illness, is a public mockery for Kate, a celebration of betrayal. In Lean on Pete, Charley (Charlie Plummer of All the Money in the World), in the tradition of many classic heroes, is motherless and symbolically bereft of the meaningful existence mothers confer on their children. His mother left shortly after he was born for reasons never explained to him. Not unlike the sin of omission in 45 Years, Charley’s affectionate but irresponsible father Ray (Travis Kimmel) never confesses to his son his obvious complicity in his wife’s departure. Ray also cuts ties with Aunt Martha (Rachael Perrell Fosket), Charley’s only other relative, motivated by the same desire to hide his shortcomings and to ensure the boy’s love for him.

Charley is sweet and trusting. His father’s failures have not made him angry or resentful, although he longs for a stable family life. On the verge of an important milestone, Charley’s acceptance on the football team of his Wyoming high school, Ray moves them to Portland, Oregon, where the movie opens. Charley is unpacking when he hears voices behind his father’s bedroom door. They live in a dilapidated, roach-infested house. Realizing Ray has company, the 15-year-old decides to go for an early morning run; when he returns, Ray’s date makes them breakfast. Ray tells Charley that she is married, apparently to a dangerous guy. Then he gives his son spending money, and Charley buys groceries, hoping his father will cook dinner. Charley tells Ray about the nearby Portland Downs that has piqued his curiosity in horses. He later lands a job with Del (Steve Buscemi), who races quarter horses.

Del is only slightly less irresponsible than Ray, but he develops a fondness for Charley. His feelings are tested when the boy realizes he is abusing the horses. Then, Ray is assaulted and is admitted to the hospital, leaving Charley entirely on his own. When he asks his father for Aunt Martha’s phone number, Ray tells him that they are just fine on their own. Charley embarks on several road trips with Del. He also meets Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a jockey who races Del’s horses. She is protective of Charley and tries to hide the less savory practices of horse racing from him, but she depends on Del for work. When Charley learns that Del plans to sell his favorite horse, Lean on Pete, to the slaughterhouse, the boy runs off with his truck and trailer, Lean on Pete in tow. Charley’s plan is to find Aunt Martha, who now lives in Laramie, Wyoming, more than a thousand miles from Portland.

Haigh’s screenplay is adapted from Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name; the movie has Charley traversing three states and various terrains to get to Laramie, a journey the filmmaker took before filming. Haigh sometimes uses the same locations to double for different deserts and national forests, which is disorienting, but a minor flaw in a film that meticulously charts Charley and Ray’s working-class, itinerant lifestyle. Lean on Pete will inevitably be compared to Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, which opens a week later and chronicles a little-known segment of Native American life. (Zhao gets the geography right.) Both are quest films about young men, aimed at adult audiences, and are notable for their emphasis on unfit fathers. Haigh’s film is what Hollywood calls “coming of age,” and Zhao’s is not; different sorts of horse culture are central to the narratives. Neither Zhao nor Haigh knew the American West before writing and directing their movies.

Lean on Pete is a more abstract indictment of American values and the pressures they place on young men than The Rider, although no less scathing. As in all archetypal quest stories, the heroes’ childhood wounds render them vulnerable to betrayal—and the journeys are fraught with danger. In Lean on Pete, so many adults are cruel or indifferent to Charley that three-quarters of the way through, a note of implausibility creeps in; for instance, a drunk’s explosive attack is too abrupt and lengthy, and Charley’s response is uncharacteristically violent. During the long, lonely trek to Laramie, as the boy runs out of money and slowly loses hope of ever getting there, his already lean frame becomes emaciated. Diminished physically and psychologically, death appears inevitable—for Charley and Lean on Pete, especially after Del’s truck breaks down and Charley must make his way on foot.

Charlie will not ride the horse—because of Del, he has come to see that as an exploitation of the animal—but he confesses his life story to him, a sad tale of yearning in which his aunt represents the sole reprieve. In these scenes, Haigh’s visual style suggests that the vastness of America’s landscape overwhelms the individual, although this does not fit Charley’s characterization as a Wyoming boy and is too palpable to be metaphorical. That false note muddles the other, broader source of betrayal for men that forms the subtext of the film, that of America’s mythology of self-reliance. It is Charley’s measure of manhood, which he learned from Ray—and it very nearly destroys him. In the end, the simplicity of Haigh’s plot highlights a wonderful performance by Charlie Plummer that transforms an awkward denouement into a piercing revelation of the ways in which Western culture injures men.

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