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Review: Lean On Pete – “A heart-wrenching yet uplifting piece of Dickensian Americana”

One of the most rewarding aspects of books being adapted for the screen is the opportunity to discover new and exciting talent, both on the written page and behind the camera. When I first heard that Andrew Haigh’s next feature was going to be an adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s coming of age novel “Lean On Pete”, I was immediately compelled to pick up the book. Ever since reading it I’ve instantly become a huge fan of Mr. Vlautin’s work and I can confidently say that the British filmmaker behind the critically acclaimed Weekend, 45 Years and HBO’s Looking has done the source material way more than justice.

If you’re familiar with Haigh’s filmography so far, you’ll know he is one of those auteurs whose level of artistic sensibility and maturity is translated on the screen into deeply observed, character-driven pieces where every shot is a work of art, each moment is ridden with meaning and no silence is ever wasted. Vlautin, in that respect, is very much in tune with Haigh’s stylistic approach as the author usually writes lyrical tales of life on the fringe of American society, delving with empathy into the darkest meanders of the human condition. That’s why this artistic collaboration feels like a match made in cinematic heaven.

Lean on Pete can be summed up as a heart-wrenching yet uplifting piece of Dickensian Americana that, despite tugging at your heartstrings, never manipulates your feelings with calculated sentimentalism. The story follows Charley Thompson, played with incredible wise-beyond-his-years sensibility by rising star Charlie Plummer (All The Money In The World), a fifteen-year-old boy who has just moved to Portland, Oregon with his train wreck of a father (Vikings’ Travis Fimmel). Sure, Ray is overall a loving parent who didn’t bail on his son like the boy’s mother did, yet he is usually MIA: when not working ungodly shifts at his blue-collar job, the man is drinking and chasing women, whilst Charley wanders around the new city alone and penny-less.

One day, whilst on his daily run to train for the football try-outs at his upcoming new high school, Charley bumps into Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), a bitter and cynical but deep down good-hearted man who owns a couple of racehorses at a nearby track. In need of cash, given his unreliable absentee father, but also in need of keeping busy in order to cope with loneliness, Charley scores a job helping out Del and it doesn’t take long for the boy to strike up a special bond with Lean On Pete, the horse Del calls “a pussy”.

Despite an initial win in a race with lovely jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) riding him, Lean On Pete is no longer good business and is clearly expendable in the ruthless eyes of grumpy Del. When Charley’s father is gravely injured in an accident and gets hospitalised, the overwhelmed and disoriented boy acts impulsively, setting off on the road with Lean On Pete to go find his estranged aunt Margy in Wyoming and at the same time try to save his beloved friend from a bleak fate.

The impromptu road trip brings an initial sense of empowerment – a triumph of freedom over the suffocating constraints of a disappointing society that has only let him down – but it is an arduous task and Charley is bound to learn it the hard way. Don’t expect however those mainstream Hollywood moments of carefully crafted story beats, hitting specific notes at a predictable pace. Like with his other films Haigh delivers a slow-burning drama driven by character development rather than plot, and with a few emotional punches that hit the spot in nuanced fashion rather than sensationalised melodrama.

The filmmaker succeeds at translating Vlautin’s emotionally impactful text for the silver screen with the help of some truly inspired casting choices. From the pitch-perfect supporting ensemble of Buscemi, Sevigny and Fimmel, who don’t waste a single moment of their screen time, all the way to the film’s young breakout star Charlie Plummer, Haigh once again confirms his gift for getting the best out of his actors. Tight editing, an affectingly sparse score and sweeping cinematography capturing the beauty and the bleak of a modern Western landscape make for a cinematic journey that perfectly conveys the atmosphere and the emotional core of Vlautin’s gut-punching novel.

It is hard to market a film like Lean On Pete because this isn’t some sort of “boy and his beloved pet go on a merry adventure” type of story – this is real life. Although the social commentary on the current state of affairs in America is not on the nose, the message is clear. This is Charley’s story after all, the story of a boy who’s been failed by everything and everyone in his life and yet relentlessly fights through the loneliness and despair to find hope, reminding us of what the resilience of the human spirit is capable of.

The bright star in the making that is Charlie Plummer brings everything he’s got to this role. He takes us on his character’s inner journey in such a remarkable way that’s hard to shake off once the screen fades to black. It’s no surprise that he won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where Lean on Pete premiered. I discovered Plummer in Felix Thompson’s criminally underrated indie drama King Jack (2015) (read my review of that here) and I immediately knew a bright future awaited him. Now I can’t wait to see this incredible young talent take over the world!

Lean On Pete is out in selected UK cinemas and available on demand from May 4th.

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