Lean on Pete

by Toby Woollaston

lopAcclaimed British writer/director Andrew Haigh has shifted focus from English domestic life in his much-lauded film 45 Years, to America’s north-west. His portrait of a rural America languishing in deep-seated economic woes isn’t a particularly flattering one, but it is a beautifully shot and incredibly powerful one.

Adapted from Willy Vlautin’s book of the same name, Lean on Pete centres on a soft natured but emotionally resilient teen named Charley (Charlie Plummer). While his dad is holed up in hospital, he meets by chance a race-horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) who runs the lower-level race circuits in Oregon. Bonding with a flagging racehorse who seems destined for the glue factory, Charlie decides to steal the horse across state. But far from the sentimental boy-and-his-horse tale you might expect, this road-journey (of sorts) is a desperately human tale that is more concerned with a boy’s need for belonging.

The film’s haunting score and fawning cinematography swoon over the American landscape, providing Haigh’s screenplay ample space and time to soak in Charley’s milieu. This is a masterclass of contemplative cinema; a slow-burn that encourages a strong sense of connection with Charley’s plight. It is sublimely moving, occasionally heartbreaking, and always engaging.

Haigh appears to have an eye for acting talent and his gamble to hang the whole film on Charlie Plummer’s performance has paid off.  Plummer (All the Money in the World) is an immense talent and repays Haigh’s trust by delivering the film its heart and soul. If you were mesmerised by New Zealand’s own Thomasin McKenzie’s nuanced and introspective performance in Leave No Trace, then you will find Plummer’s performance a perfect companion piece.

Working from his own screenplay, Haigh avoids cheap sentimentality and credits his audience with enough patience to dig beneath its gentle nature and root out meaning.  And dig you should, because beneath the surface is a film that will pack an emotional gut punch.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

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