The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
Coming home from a run, 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) finds an unfamiliar woman cooking breakfast in his kitchen. She is, as Charley’s father casually informs him, a friend from work. After she leaves, he adds that his colleague has a husband, and jokes about him showing up at their house in a fit of rage.
Charley, not sharing this bonhomie about the situation, starts to panic, taking the threat seriously. His father insists that it will be fine. They’re separated. The husband doesn’t even know where they live. Charley shouldn’t worry, he insists. Everything will be okay.
“Don’t worry” and “It’ll be okay” become common refrains over the course of Lean on Pete, the latest film from English director/screenwriter/master of compassionate yet devastating plumbing of the human condition Andrew Haigh. They begin as flippant, throwaway phrases, right up until Charley’s worst fears are proven correct and he wakes up in the middle of the night to see that angry husband throwing his dad through a plate glass window. Those phrases are later employed, in a somewhat patronizing fashion, by the staff at the hospital, who tell Charley about his father’s condition. And again, just after their assurances about the situation have already been proven tragically false.
Seeking solace from his increasingly trying young life, Charley starts to work for a local small-time race horse owner, Del (Steve Buscemi), where he seems to find some semblance of a place in the world. He likes the job and loves the horses, particularly Lean on Pete, a slow 5-year-old quarter horse. The cantankerous Del develops a fondness for the hardworking young man that threatens to grow into a mentorship. Charley also bonds with Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a jockey who sometimes rides for Del. Whatever hope these three have at becoming a makeshift family is just as quickly dashed as it was forged, though, when Pete becomes too slow and too injured to race. Charley pleads with Bonnie to spare the horse, and that’s when the familiar lines twist into a cold lesson about life. The veteran jockey tells him not to worry about the situation, because race horses aren’t pets. When she tells him that it will be okay, she’s only promising him that he’ll get over it. Pete’s fate is already sealed.
Unwilling to settle for this, Charley escapes in the middle of the night with Pete. “Don’t worry,” the boy constantly whispers to his horse as they travel across the American midwest, “It will be okay.” They have nothing but a broken-down car, the occasional kindness of strangers, and some vague contact deals for a beloved aunt that Charley hasn’t seen or heard from in years. The words have now become a Hail Mary prayer, an incantation against the looming reality of the situation. There is everything to worry about. It’s unlikely that everything will be all right. The next time those words are uttered in the film, it’s under even worse circumstances.
Just as the meaning and the motivation behind these words shifts over the course of Lean on Pete, so does the film itself. It begins with the promise of a classic Karate Kid-like story of a young man finding his way through a calling that he loves, and the guidance of an older master. Later, it veers into a dark take on a runaway caper before slowly evolving into a more traditional American road movie. There are also hints of a coming-of-age tale throughout, although there’s far more at work in the heartbreaking developments of Lean on Pete than the typical growing pains of adolescence. Perhaps it’s more accurate to simply call it an Andrew Haigh film.
Whether he’s exploring the fleeting joys of a whirlwind romance (Weekend) or the devastating revelations that can undermine multiple decades of a seemingly successful marriage (45 Years), Haigh has established himself as an artist eminently capable of making incredibly human films about incredibly human pain. His stories vivisect our deepest fears and longings, exposing both our desperate need for meaningful connection and the seeming impossibility of finding it. With the aid of brilliant actors who somehow manage to become even more capable (best exemplified by Charlotte Rampling’s Oscar-nominated turn in 45 Years), he allows you to identify with his characters – or at least with their longing – and then they break your heart.
Lean on Pete continues this tradition thanks to Haigh’s story about a young boy fighting for both his survival and for a chance to be a little less alone in the world, and to Plummer’s stunning performance, which allows you to see both the teen’s swelling undercurrent of emotion and his struggle to keep it bottled up. It does differ a little when Charlie hits the road, as it drifts into something less taut than Haigh’s previous efforts. At times it feels a little too much like a checklist of lower-class American tragedies, as Charlie moves from haunted military vets to small-town girls with no prospects and less hope to intermittently generous and violent drunks. But while Lean on Pete risks turning gratuitous in terms of narrative flourishes and excess, it’s never gratuitous in its characterizations. Each individual encounter is rendered with compassion and respect. These meandering scenes are tragic and often hard to watch, but they’re not exploitative.
Although not quite as masterful or perfectly executed as his previous effort (although, in all fairness, the sublime 45 Years is hard to top), Lean on Pete is still an excellent next chapter in Haigh’s ongoing chronicle of the human condition. Like all of his work, it’s a hard watch – the kind of viewing experience where you might have to reassure yourself that you don’t need to worry, that everything will be okay – but a rewarding one that leaves a lingering impression.