Directed by: Andrew Haigh
Premise: A teenager living in poverty (Charlie Plummer) gets a job with a race horse trainer. He gets attached to one of the horses while struggling with an unstable home life.
What Works: Lean on Pete is grounded and gritty and manages to be consistently surprising. Its story goes in unexpected directions. Lean on Pete begins as a story of a boy and his horse. Fifteen year old Charley gets a job with a race horse trainer and begins to learn the trade but he gradually becomes attached to the animal and refuses to go along with the heartless treatment. This is the beginning of a story that’s been seen many times before but a third of the way into the film Lean on Pete takes a turn and it becomes a different kind of story. And in its last third, Lean on Pete makes another sharp turn into a third kind of story. The film transitions smoothly between its different pieces and it is impressive how well they fit together. The changes also disrupt audience expectations in the best way; with each major turn in the story Lean on Pete becomes more unpredictable and the young man’s situation becomes increasingly precarious. It’s also impressive how the different parts of Lean on Pete rise above clichés. Its portrait of the working poor and of the relationship between Charley and his horse is free of sentimentality. The characters feel real and they are flawed and complex. The film has several impressive performances, starting with Charlie Plummer as the teenage boy. Plummer possesses a mix of adolescent naiveté and aching hurt and the trauma haunting this character is apparent underneath Plummer’s performance. Also notable in supporting roles are Steve Buscemi as the horse trainer and Chloë Sevigny as a jockey. Lean on Pete is beautifully shot. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck films the western landscape in ways that capture the grit and harshness of the land but also its beauty.
What Doesn’t: Storytellers have to juggle the elements of causation and chance. It’s fine and quite often necessary for a story to begin on a chance event but as stories go on they must be driven by causation. That’s to say the story turns on the character’s choices as opposed to random circumstances beyond the character’s control. Chance events figure heavily in Lean on Pete. There are several turns in the story that rely on minor characters being stupid or careless or unbelievably charitable. In some ways this suits the road trip portion of Lean on Pete as Charlie Plummer’s character goes from place to place and encounters strangers. But nearly every one of them is incredulously unsuspicious of this teenage boy. The minor characters otherwise feel real enough but throughout the middle of the story the protagonist consistently gets in and out of circumstances through chance.
Bottom Line: Lean on Pete is an exceptional film. Although its storytelling relies on coincidence this is a great character piece with some terrific acting and it consistently takes the audience in unexpected directions.
Episode: #599 (May 20, 2018)