Film review: ‘LEAN ON PETE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed”

Low-key drama Lean on Pete is about as far from mass entertainment spectacle as cinema gets in 2018 but it’s one of the year’s best and most emotionally affecting films.

Based on the Willy Vlautin novel, the film explores life on society’s bottom rungs through the experiences of 15-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer). With his mother having left, Charley ekes out a life in dilapidated home with amiable but self-destructive father Ray (Travis Fimmel). When Charley finds work assisting sleazy horse trainer, Del (Steve Buscemi), he develops an affection for a horse named Lean on Pete and starts to find direction in his life. When Pete is marked for slaughter, Charley absconds with him across the North Western Plains of Oregon hoping to find sanctuary with an aunt he hasn’t seen for years. Soon, though, finds himself on a desperate and seemingly hopeless journey.

This film could have been an over-sentimental, boy-meets-animal story but instead of it adopts the austere, detached style of directors like Robert Bresson while powerfully and movingly depicting Charley’s battles with personal tragedy, homelessness and starvation. There are also elements of Wake in Fright as the naïve and innocent Charley, journeys through an often corrupt, unforgiving and physically harsh world trying to maintain some semblance of dignity and hope.

Charlie Plummer is terrific as namesake Charley giving him touching fragility mixed with quiet resilience and a constant sense that he’s bottling powerful emotions which he doesn’t know how to handle; he’s someone we desperately hope finds some happiness. Plummer’s introspective manner, lean features and floppy hair recall River Phoenix and it would be hard not to think a fruitful film career awaits. He’s accompanied by an American indie film dream team with Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny and Steven Zahn all of whom are terrific giving their characters nuance and dimension as they constantly and believably shift from endearing to despicable.

British director Andrew Haigh brings an arthouse sensibility to the film emphasising rich character development and a sense of Charley’s physical and social environment ahead of narrative drive. Along with cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, Haigh has created a visually striking film that gives the vast plains of the American West both beauty and a sense of threat.

Lean on Pete is a small but wonderful film that stays with viewers long after they leave the cinema.

Nick’s rating: *****

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Andrew Haigh.

Release date: 29th Nov 2018.

Running time: 121 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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