If there’s an animal mentioned in the title of a film, there’s a good chance that you’re going to cry by the end of it. Sometimes it’s the animal itself, sometimes it’s just the portal towards human emotion. This week, Lean on Pete opens to try and give your tear ducts some exercise. Whether it has to do with the animal who gives the movie its title or the events that happen to the protagonist, I’ll leave for you to discover, but this is the sort of picture that would love for you to cry. Luckily though, it never feels manipulative. Andrew Haigh actually tells the story in a distant enough way that the organic moments of emotion are more on your part than on the part of the filmmaker or the actors. That’s an accomplishment.
This movie is a drama that initially seems to be about a boy and his horse, before becoming something more. Teenager Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) has just moved to a new town with his father Ray (Travis Fimmel), something that seems to happen more than occasionally. Out on a run, Charley comes across a race track, and in talking to a horse owner there named Del (Steve Buscemi), lands himself a job. He takes to the work well, but is really struck by a fading horse named, you guessed it, Lean on Pete. Del is upfront about Pete needing to win races in order to last, but Charley seems not to listen. Then, when the inevitable is set into motion, Charley takes desperate steps to protect what he feels is his only friend in the world. Things take a real turn there, but I won’t say much, since that discovery is what makes this movie something so different. Haigh wrote the adaptation of the novel by Willy Vlautin and directs here, with the supporting cast including Chloë Sevigny, Alison Elliott, Amy Seimetz, Steve Zahn, and more. The cinematography is by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, while James Edward Barker contributes the score.
Lean on Pete takes a bit to warm up to. If we’re being honest, when I first saw it, I wasn’t a huge fan. Then, I sat with it a bit. Over the last month or so, it’s grown on me. The film is definitely about the journey of Charley, and it’s to Haigh’s credit that he never pulls any punches. When the character suffers, you feel it, even if it’s removed in a way. Plummer is quite good here, suggesting a bright future for the young actor that’s not far off. It’s a step below something to rave about, but it’s quality cinema, suggesting that voters may in fact remember it at the end of the year.
Conceived in all likelihood as a potential Oscar vehicle, Lean on Pete could struggle to last into the awards season with this early release date, but it’s not impossible. If nothing else, A24 will give it a little push, with Best Picture, Best Director (for Haigh), Best Actor (for Plummer), and Best Adapted Screenplay (also for Haigh) on the table. There isn’t really an obvious category for it to make a play, but if the more independent minded precursors take to it, I could see it gaining momentum at the 11th hour. For now, it’s just another early possibility to consider.
Starting tomorrow, audiences can see a slightly haunting and emotionally wrenching drama when Lean on Pete begins its theatrical run. It’s another powerful work from Haigh, who also has a bright future ahead of him. If you can stand being put through the wringer, knowing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, this could be a really fulfilling film for you. Again, it took me a bit to come around to it, which doesn’t usually happen with this sort of a movie, but your mileage may vary. If nothing else, it’s more evidence of a tremendous week here in early April for cinema. Give it a shot and see what you think…
Be sure to check out Lean On Pete, opening in theaters this weekend!