Venice Film Festival: Lean on Pete

Lean on Pete
Venezia 74
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Starring Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Steve Zahn

by Richard Hamer

Andrew Haigh’s follow up to 45 Years is a very different sort of film. Based on the novel of the same name, this Oregan-based story of a 15-year old runaway is as dark and serious a piece of American contemporary cinema as you can get; a thoroughly unsentimental journey through the heart of the Pacific Northwest.

What it does share with Haigh’s earlier work is an unapologetic slow pace, and a steady compounding of small sadnesses. By the time young Charley (Charlie Plummer) runs away from home, so much has already happened: living in relative poverty – his mother gone and father hospitalised – Charley takes refuge in his summer job working for washed-up racehorse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). He grows especially attached to one of the horses, the eponymous ‘Lean on Pete’ – a somewhat crippled sprinter, past his best. With his home-life at rock bottom, once Charley learns that Del is planning to have Pete sold off and killed, something inside him snaps. Charley runs away, horse in tow, to brave the vast and unforgiving wilderness in search of his estranged Aunt.

Lean on Pete is not an easy watch, more so because it is not what you expect it to be. With an initial set-up (and some misleading marketing material) suggesting a tender story of friendship between horse and boy, the ever bleaker depths into which the movie sinks are often shocking, and ones I have tried hard not to spoil. Suffice it to say; Lean on Pete – while steeped in Americana – is a universal commentary on the young, the poor and the forgotten. As his journey continues, and his circumstances only worsen, the lack of a societal safety net to catch Charley, and those around him, becomes a source of bitter frustration.

Charlie Plummer says little as Charley, but does much with just a look and a manner of walking: a great, understated performance in a movie full of great and understated performances. It says much that the 18-year old actor is consistently able to hold your interest, and garner your sympathy, through what is a long and often very slow movie. And, while there are moments of boredom (the film not revealing its real teeth until relatively late), they quickly pass. Lean on Pete is another success for Andrew Haigh: both a sensitive portrayal of childhood grief, and a surprisingly pointed attack on the societies that don’t do enough to help.


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