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Film review: Lean On Pete

5 May 2018 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

British director Andrew Haigh has made some remarkable films in a relatively short time. He has made three feature-length films; Greek Pete (2009), Weekend (2011), and 45 Years (2015). His fourth, Lean on Pete, is his first to travel to the US. Haigh’s work deals with every day lives, in which the drama lies within.

The film opens on a young man running, and indeed running reoccurs throughout the film: whenever our protagonist 15-year-old Charlie is in trouble, he reverts to running. This would seem to be a direct reference to Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner –incidentally starring lead of 45 Years Tom Courtenay – which also opens with a young man from a working class background running through his hometown. Haigh’s film echoes the social concerns of that famous social realist film; can the young man escape his own poverty, or must he endure it?
Charlie’s life is precarious: he lives with his amiable but somewhat neglectful father in a small house often bereft of food. Though he has a beloved aunt, she and his father have not spoken in some years, and he now does not know where she is.  After a chance meeting with Del (Steve Buscemi), Charlie starts working with horses at racetracks, developing a soft spot for a horse named ‘Lean on Pete.’ This may sound like a familiar narrative in which a neglected boy finds solace in care for an animal, but in actuality, the film takes a surprising turn, when Del decides to sell the increasingly lame horse. Charlie decides to run away with Pete to find his aunt across the country in Wyoming. This is not a road-movie in the traditional sense, and this sudden change in scenery is as much a shock for Charlie as it is for the audience. Making increasingly desperate decisions, the true precarity of his life is revealed.

Throughout the film, Charlie meets various individuals who are capable of both kindness and cruelty. A waitress may let him go when he tries to run out of a restaurant, but the man who lets him stay with him in his trailer later robs him. People are by no means clear-cut in this film. Through this, the film circumvents easy clichés or cheap sentiment. At one point early on in the film, when Charlie and Del sit in a café, Del lectures Charlie on his lack of manners. In another kind of film this would start off a series of heartwarming interactions between the older man and the boy, as he gives him a guiding hand through life. Del, however, is revealed to be rather more dodgy than he appears, giving his horses drugs and electric shocks to ensure they win. There is no kind guidance from Del, and no help from jaded jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny); Haigh does not insist that his characters teach one another, merely that they live with one another, making decisions that have a series of repercussions that are totally unpredictable.  

The film ends just how it begins, with Charlie running around his new neighbourhood. Now cleaned up, with a short haircut and new running clothes, he has been changed by his experience. But his commitment to running is also symbolic of his strategy of endurance. Though Haigh’s film is by no means didactic or preachy, in its sensitive documenting of the life of a young man, it shows the precarity of many low-income families, only a few decisions away from complete destitution. Charlie Plummer’s extraordinary performance as the vulnerable but hard-headed young man makes this one of the best films of the year.  
Lean on Pete is in cinemas from 4 May.

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