Lean on Pete is like a walk at night. It’s surreal and relatable. The movie draws from an extremely well written ensemble of characters, with Charley (played by Charlie Plummer) at its centre. Filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s (Weekend, 45 Years) coming of age story is neither bursting out the door nor rushing to a climax. It gives us a slice of Charley’s life to make us reflect on concepts of care and neglect.
Well into the second hour of the movie a characters explains, “I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Lean on Pete is a story embedded in that sentiment. Without being melodramatic, the movie tries to make sense of Charley’s actions, actions that may seem equal parts idiotic and heroic but this 15 year old boy is just trying to survive around people who are petty and mean and sometimes brutal.
The movie opens with Charley going on a long run in his neighbourhood. He has recently moved to Portland with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel). Ray loves his son but he isn’t the best father, careless to the point where his actions have devastating results for both of them. They live in abject poverty, but Charley is shown to be independent and self sufficient. The movie kicks in once Charley starts working for Del (Steve Buscemi), a fractious owner from the local track. Del couldn’t care less about his horses, but once Charley meets Lean on Pete, he forms an immediate bond. Their friendship is seen through silence and one sided chatter.
When Del decides that he has no use for Pete anymore, Charley decides to take matters into his own hands. The moment is not built up for edgy excitement but rather draws us in to take part in it. We don’t question the boy’s decisions, we understand them. As Charlie makes his way across the desert landscape to find his mother in Wyoming, we never need centre stage monologues to understand his actions. Haigh seems to have stepped back to let Plummer discover and shape Charley as he faces hardships on this journey of pain, compassion and discovery.
The script seems to carry the compassion that is otherwise missing in its characters and storyline. And amidst it all, the landscape is beautiful and the colors seem to echo the boy’s feelings. In a never ending sequence of suffering, the background is a welcome reprieve, as are the interactions between Charley and Pete. It’s not a new concept, the story of a boy and his horse but Lean on Pete is not a fantasy with glimpses of freedoms and grandeur. We are given no promises, no lies, making the audience understand that the story goes on even after the credits starts rolling.
The movie toes the line where its appeal is uncertain but once you’re in, it makes you feel its hunger, agitation and the few moments of peace in between. Just like Charley is unable to do anything but try and save Pete, we can’t help but root for the boy with nothing but compassion and a survival instinct.