Having broken through in 2011 with his refreshingly uninhibited gay romance, Weekend, writer-director Andrew Haigh signalled his refusal to be pigeonholed with his follow-up, 45 Years, a superbly controlled depiction of a long-married middle-class couple dealing with a revelation from the past. Switching from an urban to a rural setting, and jumping decades in the ages of his main characters, the filmmaker showed a confident versatility that was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Charlotte Rampling.
That versatility is much in evidence with Haigh’s new film, which swaps the Norfolk Broads of 45 Years for the hard-scrabble underbelly of the Pacific Northwest. Lean On Pete follows motherless 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer), who has recently moved with his warehouse-worker father to Portland, Oregon. Charley wins a sense of independence and self-worth when he lands some paid work with a local horse trainer (a reliably impressive Steve Buscemi), and forms a bond with both a jockey (Chloë Sevigny) and a horse named Lean On Pete.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin, this is a story that – just like Haigh’s career – keeps you guessing. Buscemi’s horse trainer, Del, is an irascible and frequently unprincipled operator, who nevertheless shows flashes of a generous spirit towards Charley, and it’s easy to imagine a different film in which this rough-edged mentor character travels through an arc towards familiar redemption. But Lean On Pete unexpectedly pivots in a whole new direction, when Charley takes drastic action to save the titular animal – and Haigh trades in working-class Portland for the vast landscapes of the American west.
This is a film that becomes ever richer and deeper as it progresses, anchored by Plummer’s achingly moving turn as a resourceful teen striving for the basic necessities of life. Seen recently as the kidnapped John Paul Getty III in Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World, the young actor is given much more powerful opportunities with this new role, registering vividly and heartbreakingly. This is a breakout performance to rank alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life, and Timotheé Chalamet in last year’s Call Me By Your Name.
As Charley journeys hundreds of miles across Oregon and Idaho, towards a family relative in Wyoming, Lean On Pete captures the beauty and the danger of the quest in equal measure. It’s also a powerful depiction of life on the margins, and a compelling portrait of a rural America that has been left behind in the newly disrupted and globalised economy. Confirming Haigh as a major director capable of tackling any subject in any setting, Lean On Pete is also a vital, heartfelt and superbly resonant drama.