Lean on Pete, the new film from director Andrew Haigh (45 Years, Weekend) is sad. This is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the film, something I’ve been doing often in the weeks since I saw it. It contains the kind of sadness that slips into the cracks of your foundation and breaks you from the inside out. When the credits rolled, I was left off-kilter. My world had tilted. Something irreparable had occurred.
The film centers on Charley, a 15 year old kid played with wide eyes and impossible vulnerability by Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World). He doesn’t have much, but he does have a little: a past as an athlete, a father who seems to be trying, a hopeful outlook on the world around him. The Charley we meet in the film’s beginning isn’t jaded by where his life has fell short. There is mention of an aunt who isn’t in the picture anymore, but Charley doesn’t let feel bitter about it. What good would it do?
But this movie isn’t about Charley. Not really. It’s about Pete, or rather Lean on Pete, a run-hard racehorse owned by Dell (a worn-down Steve Buscemi). Pete’s presence makes this a horse movie, but it is not a Horse Movie. This is not Black Stallion, this is not War Horse. This is an Andrew Haigh film, and so it is quiet and uncompromising, subtle and shattering.
When Charley meets Pete, he is running in the early hours of dawn, something he does as part of his routine. The summer is ending soon and football tryouts are coming up. He wants to get back into shape. It is surprising to hear that Charley plays football; he is a small kid, with long limbs and a physicality bordering on breakable. But the surprise of it is also part of Lean on Pete’s magic: There is a truth to everything, even in the implausible.
On his run, Charley passes a stable, where a few horses are out walking. He stops and watches the horses, and by the day’s end, he has gotten a job there through pure force of will (Dell, the owner of said stable, is doubtful of Charley’s capabilities, but quickly learns that what Charley lacks in experience, he makes up for in desire to be there). Charley’s job with Dell is a lot of grunt work: shoveling hay, walking the horses, loading them up in the trailer. From the moment he starts, we know he is doomed. His eyes are too big, too open to make it through this world alive. And so he falls in love with Pete. And when Pete stops winning races, he saves him, and together they attempt to survive the world they live in.
Haigh makes romances. Weekend, his debut, follows two young men as they grow together over a weekend. 45 Years, his Oscar-nominated follow-up, explores the commitment and desolation of an aging marriage. While Lean on Pete may not appear to be as immediately romantic as Haigh’s previous two features, do not be mistaken. It glows and vibrates with the same energy that makes Haigh such a talented filmmaker. He adores his characters but refuses sentimentality at every turn. He presents their lives, their situations as they are, which becomes its own kind of tragedy.
Charley spends the majority of the film’s run time trying to do the right thing. He supports his father, he does right by Dell, and he takes care of Pete, even when it becomes impossible to do all three. At every turn, the world disappoints him, and yet he does not give up. Plummer portrays Charley as an open book, the kind of face that can’t help but give itself away. It is a remarkable performance, and one of the very best of the year. It is a fitting coincidence that both actor and character share the first name, for Plummer imbues Charley with such humanity and empathy that it becomes impossible to separate the two. Lean on Pete would not survive without Plummer’s face, which becomes its central focal point for its 121 minutes. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck shoots his face in intimate close up, following his every look and glance with the kind of rapt attention we ascribe to works of art. It is a miracle that Plummer doesn’t wilt under this kind of intimacy. Lean on Pete is the first lead role the 19 year old actor has done, and it doesn’t show one bit. Ultimately, it is the kind of performance that will linger, and one that promises a long, successful career to follow.
Lean on Pete is an exquisite film. Nothing this year has affected me the way it did. Haigh makes movies that we don’t see very often, ones about the small things, the things in between everything else, the outskirts of nowhere. I feel blessed to witness them. And with Lean on Pete, Haigh has mastered his technique to haunting effect. It is the strongest effort from an already strong filmmaker. And, most importantly, it does right by Charley. Just as Charley would have done for him, and for us.