Lean on Pete

 

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Andrew Haigh goes to America and reminds us of a film from France.

 
Lean on Pete
  

Here is a film that is often superb and sometimes disappointing. It is the work of writer/director Andrew Haigh who also gave us Weekend (2011) and 45 Years (2015) and, regardless of its faults (very much in the writing rather the direction), it confirms his standing as one of Britain’s most distinguished filmmakers. When it was first announced, Haigh’s admirers were surprised twice over: first, because Lean on Pete is set in America - in Portland, Oregon - and secondly because this adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel was described as being about a boy, Charley (Charlie Plummer), and his love for a horse. Since the title is, indeed, the name of the horse, one was ready to take that at face value even if it sounded odd territory for Haigh to choose. But the title is in fact misleading and the best excuse for retaining it is that it is already known to readers of the novel.

 

Charley is a 15-year-old without a mother and with a caring but unreliable dad (Travis Fimmel). When out running one day Charley encounters a horse owner named Del (Steve Buscemi) and, having assisted him over changing a wheel on his truck, the boy is taken into his employ. It is then that Charley discovers an affinity with horses and takes to Lean on Pete in particular, although Del’s friend, the jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), warns him not to form an emotional attachment with an animal - especially one likely to be sold off to the knacker’s yard. Failing to heed the warning, Charley soon reaches the point at which, in order to save the  horse, he drives off with it in the hope of reaching Wyoming and locating there the aunt of whom he has fond memories from the days before she quarrelled with his father and disappeared from his life.

 

Described thus, this could be a story specifically designed to appeal to children, but as the 15 Certificate proves, it isn’t. Charley may love a horse, but that is no more the key issue than the fact that young Antoine Doinel in Les Quatre Cents Coups loves cinema. Both films are concerned with a youngster who lacks security in his home life and who, in breaking away may run the risk of being turned by the harsh realities of life into a delinquent. That Charley’s adolescent dream of a better life may prove to be inconsistent with life as it is comes to matter for us. There are two reasons for that: one is the utter conviction that Plummer (recently seen in All the Money in the World) brings to the central character and the other is Haigh’s ability to create films in which the people seem quite wonderfully real. Other technical qualities - first-rate photography and editing - and Haigh’s avoidance of sentimentality add to the impact. But, about halfway through a film that looks set to be a masterpiece, an unexpected plot twist leads into a second half that is decidedly episodic. Furthermore, we now miss the superbly written and acted roles for Fimmel, Buscemi and Sevigny, all of whom have by this stage dropped out of the picture. The film’s grip is not lost, but it is substantially lessened in these later scenes and they are too lacking in incisiveness for the film not to feel overlong. But at its best Lean on Pete is outstanding.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Buscemi, Steve Zahn, Lewis Pullman, Alison Elliott, Julia Prud'homme, Teyah Hartley, Justin Rain, Rachael Perrell Fosket, Frank Gallegos.

 

Dir Andrew Haigh, Pro Tristan Goligher, Screenplay Andrew Haigh, from the novel by Willy Vlautin, Ph Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, Pro Des Ryan Warren Smith, Ed Jonathan Alberts, Music James Edward Barker, Costumes Julie Carnahan.

  
BFI Film Fund/The Bureau/Film 4-Curzon Artificial Eye.
121 mins. UK. 2017. Rel: 4 May 2018. Cert. 15.