By Charlie David Page
14th August 2018

Sometimes you can watch a trailer and feel like you’ve already seen the film in its entirety. Other times, the trailer will leave you with more questions than answers. When I first sat through the ‘Lean on Pete’ trailer a few months back, I had a very different concept of what this film would be. It seemed to be a reasonably innocent tale of the friendship between a boy and his horse, with a little family angst thrown in for good measure.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Charley (Charlie Plummer, ‘All The Money in the World’) has no mother, and a father (Travis Fimmel, TV’s ‘Vikings’, ‘Warcraft: The Beginning’) who is barely present, more concerned about sleeping with a steady stream of women than taking care of his son. When Charley comes across a stableyard on a morning run, Del (Steve Buscemi, ‘The Death of Stalin’, ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘Fargo’) offers him a job helping with menial tasks with his horses and transporting them to local racetracks. When an accident befalls his dad, it’s up to Charley to bring in money for the family - but the boy’s overly-sentimental attachment to a horse called Lean on Pete could compromise his employment and inadvertently lead to his life spiralling out of control.


This description is deliberately vague and misleading, because to know what’s in store is to deny the emotional ride you will be sent on. As Charley’s situation rapidly escalates and he increasingly finds himself in situations no fifteen-year-old should be forced to endure, it can be a difficult to watch - he’s slowly stripped of everything in his life, until he’s left with absolutely nothing. Some would argue it’s a cathartic process, and that the place he ends up is better than where he began, but that discounts the physical and emotional turmoil that Charley is put through.

That turmoil is so poignant because of Charlie Plummer’s restrained, compelling performance. He’s a quiet force in the film, not absent from a single scene, yet making this fantastical situation believable. There are no dramatics as he faces rough times, which both makes the story tangible and his character endearing. It’s therefore the onscreen interactions when the film is at its peak - yes, of course, his friendship with Pete, but just as much his substitute parents in Del and his jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny, 'Beatriz at Dinner', 'Boys Don't Cry'). While both are brilliant, Sevigny’s character is fixating as she transforms herself into a tough rider with a soft side that oozes with sympathy for Charley’s situation.

That turmoil is so poignant because of Charlie Plummer’s restrained, compelling performance. He’s a quiet force in the film, barely absent from a single scene, making both the story tangible and his character endearing.

This is now writer/director Andrew Haigh’s fourth feature film, and while storywise they may be worlds apart, there are more than a few similarities with my favourite of his past films, ‘Weekend’. There’s a shared texture, both seeming sparse and somewhat bleak, whilst dealing with extremely personal situations. In both, the camerawork is more observational than intrusive, preferring to let the story play out than force it forward.

Haigh also adapted the story from Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel of the same name, focusing on key elements of Charley’s character: “Willy’s novel is heartbreaking but never sentimental,” Haigh explains. “Charley’s relationship with Pete reveals the inherent kindness of this kid - and his deep understanding that we all share a very basic need to feel protected.”

Throughout this tale is a persevering desire for Charley to find stability and feel loved and connected. It interweaves personal, moving moments with times of great despair, but it’s the unwavering dedication of this boy to reach his end goal which was most affecting for me. The strength of human endurance can be infinite, even under the harshest of circumstances. Witnessing Charley’s journey had me behind him every step of the way, feeling the pain of his failings and great joy at every small victory. ‘Lean on Pete’ is an amalgamation of emotions, offering an all-too realistic glimpse at the struggles of life through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy. Delicately handled, it shows great control from a skilled cast and crew, and great promise for Charlie Plummer as an impressive actor to watch.

Looking for more Melbourne International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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