A large portion of the credit for Andrew Haigh’s affecting and memorable Lean on Pete goes to its young star, Charlie Plummer. Over the last 80 to 90 years, there’s been a lot of comment and opining about screen-acting “naturals,” actors whose work seems unaffectedly effortless, and whom the camera seems to favor. Whether or not Plummer is one of these, his work in this picture is so naturalistically convincing that it may be too easy to forget he’s working, and the effort and control he must have invested in his role. He looks and sounds perfectly like a reserved, unreliably articulate and uncertain 15-year-old adolescent, but this is the product of art, not just nature and luck.
Plummer plays Charley, a kid who has been dragged by Ray (Travis Fimmel), his cheerfully immature, good-time-seeking father, from Spokane, Washington to Portland, Oregon. Charley’s unbalanced mother split when he was very young. Now, uprooted and dropped in a strange new place, Ray (whom he does love), is about all he has left. Until he discovers a nearby racetrack, an exotic facility to Charley.
Wandering around, he’s hailed by Del (Steve Buscemi), a horse owner who needs help changing a truck tire. On the spur of the moment he hires Charley as stablehand and dogsbody. The newly happy lad has no frame of reference, but this is a racing‑world backwater, where quarter horses run at county fairs and at even lower-ranked, makeshift tracks.
Del is a sharp-tongued, cynical small timer, but he recognizes Charley’s innocence and hard work and evinces a limited, tolerant approval of the kid. Charley, in turn, is happy with his humble position, as he bonds with Lean on Pete, one of Del’s several horses. Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), Del’s jockey, warns Charley that the horses aren’t pets: “They’re here to race.” But when Del, after overworking and drugging Pete, decides to send him to the slaughterhouse, Charley, now even more alone because of a violent event, acts. He steals Pete and Del’s truck and takes off to find an estranged aunt he thinks is in Wyoming.
Thus begins a daunting eastward odyssey across difficult geography. Charley and Pete encounter a number of characters, hostile and helpful, in this swath of Trump’s America.
Adapting Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel of the same title, Haigh has made more than an off-beat, quietly harrowing coming-of-age movie. He’s fashioned an episodic narrative social portrait of a sort not usually found in American movies. This is an America where people lead marginalized, sometimes desperate and dangerous lives. Charley and Pete meet both nastiness and rough-hewn kindness.
Haigh’s observational skill in conveying the speech and behavior in this world is acute. (He’s managed to remain faithful to Vlautin’s novel even though he’s had to considerably simplify it.) His movie is spare, without hyped energy or ostentatious devices. There isn’t one melodramatic moment, nor a musical score until the very end. Pete does contain one or two implausibilities, but they’re partly imported from the novel, and Haigh has maintained the book’s tone, aided by Magnus Jonck’s clear but elegant photography.
Haigh has also managed to convey his sympathy for his varied characters, even when he has to portray their deficiencies and nastiness. Buscemi’s Del, for example, is hard-bitten, bitter and occasionally unfeeling, but he’s not without a modicum of realism about his lot. “I used to like horses, too,” he tells Charley at one point.
Lean on Pete is realistic about life’s limitations and pressures. And, unexpectedly, it’s not only absorbing but it provides some real emotional satisfaction. Opens Friday at the North Park and Eastern Hills Mall Cinema.