LEAN ON PETE
Director: Andrew Haigh
Cast: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Travis Fimmel, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Zahn, Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain, Amy Seimetz, Alison Elliott
MPAA Rating: (for language and brief violence)
Running Time: 2:01
Release Date: 4/6/18 (limited); 4/13/18 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 12, 2018
It's hard enough being 16. Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) has it a bit tougher. His mother left him before he could really remember her. He's stuck with a father who can't get his act together, going from job to job and seemingly messing up each and every opportunity that comes his way. When we first meet Charley's old man, who seems more like a kid than his teenage son, Ray (Travis Fimmel) has already bedded a co-worker at his new job. It's probably not the smartest move on Ray's part, given his track record with women and employment. The woman is nice, though, making the boys the first decent breakfast they likely have had in some time.
There's a look of shock on Charley's face when the woman serves him breakfast, and there's another look as the trio has some pleasant conversation over the meal. It's almost like longing, but it's mostly satisfaction and contentment. This is what life could be—a hardworking father, who has made some mistakes but is working to make sure he doesn't repeat them, and a mother, who actually takes an interest in and enjoys the company of her son, and a son, who knows, perhaps more than most, that he should be grateful for such little moments of a normal home life.
The scene serves as a brief, fading moment of domestic bliss in Lean on Pete. We've already gathered that Charley is a good kid—the kind who doesn't ask for much, because he knows there isn't much he can expect. The knowing defines him more than the not asking.
A teenager can put on a good front, in the hopes that showing adults what they expect will earn them some kind of reward. When Ray gives Charley some cash from his wallet before starting a long shift, he apologizes that there isn't more money to offer. Charley gives another look here: one of surprise, as if he weren't expecting it, and of gratitude, because he genuinely appreciates that his dad would give what little he has to Charley, and of sincerity, because he is, above all else, a good kid.
Writer/director Andrew Haigh's film relies almost entirely on Plummer's performance. We have to gather a lot from the character in these unspoken moments, because Charley's life is about to go through a tailspin that is somehow both completely unexpected and totally predictable. We figure it'll happen because the circumstances in his life, so maybe "unexpected" isn't the right word. On the other hand, it's also exactly the correct word, because we figure that Charley, as kind and thoughtful and decent as he is, doesn't deserve the cruelty of fate or his socioeconomic status to catch up to him.
Plummer's performance engenders this sort of instant sympathy for Charley. He is completely sincere in his attitude and actions, and that makes his gradual transformation into a kid who has his outlook on the world shattered all the more heartbreaking.
It begins with yet another act of goodwill. Realizing that his dad could use a little help in finances, he asks for and takes a job with Del (Steve Buscemi), who owns and trains a handful of racehorses at a nearby ranch. Charley has never worked with horses before, but he's instantly drawn to one in particular—a Quarter Horse named Lean on Pete. Charley puts in a hard day's work, gets more money than Del promised when he offered the kid a job, and arrives home the next day with bags filled with groceries, paid for with his own cash, for his waiting father.
This is pretty much the end of happiness for Charley, but Haigh, adapting Willy Vlautin's novel, has prepared us in a way for the increasing sense of loneliness and isolation that's to come. The first section of the film, in which Charley's life seems to be on an upswing, is filled with quiet moments of idyllic and even romantic seclusion—Charley working with the horses, cleaning up after them, taking scenic road trips with Del, watching the horses race, taking in the starry sky while lying the bed of Del's pickup truck. This is the good life—the best, perhaps, that Charley has ever known.
The scenery doesn't change here. The people don't, either. They simply reveal more of themselves. Del—who quickly becomes like another father figure to the kid, with his straightforward, no-nonsense advice—doesn't really have the well-being of the horses at heart. It's all business for him, and if that means running a horse ragged until it's only worth death sentence of a trip to Mexico, that's just the cost of the races. The pretty jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) seems to love the horses as much as Charley does. She has seen enough, though, to warn the kid not to become attached to Pete.
For everything that Charley has gone through in his life, pragmatism hasn't figured in to his personality and worldview. It's one of the things that we admire about the kid. When his father is taken out of the picture, after that scene of domestic bliss turns out to have had another side, the lack of that quality means he's only in for a much harder, far less forgiving fall.
To say more would be unfair, except to note that Charley's downfall is as much about his refusal to abandon his kind, gentle core as it is because of circumstance. Trying to escape his life with Pete in tow, he doesn't ride the horse, even though it would make the trip much easier on him. He gives people the benefit of the doubt, even though it doesn't get him much and, sometimes, comes back to harm him.
The film has a similar quality of compassion and openness. It presents characters whom we should suspect and, perhaps, dislike. There's always another side to them, whether it's the cynical Del, who really is just trying to scrape a living like everyone else, or a homeless man named Silver (Steve Zahn), who treats Charley with kindness at the kid's time of need but betrays him in a moment of drunken frailty. Lean on Pete gives us a protagonist and a performance that make us want to see the more optimistic side. It may be folly, but at times, it's only way to get through this world.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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