Lean on Pete, the new drama from writer-director Andrew Haigh, isn’t an easy film to watch. Over the course of its two hours, Haigh’s adaptation of the novel by Willy Vlautin, pushes its main character so far to the brink time and time again that it becomes incredibly draining to watch. The strong performances and crisp cinematography can’t ease the relentless grimness of Lean on Pete, making it a film I just couldn’t connect with no matter how hard I tried.
The first glimpse the audience gets of Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer), the teenager is running at the break of dawn, getting his exercise while surveying the new neighborhood he’s just moved to with his father Ray (Travis Fimmel), who enjoys his cheap beer and philandering with co-workers. Charley is often left to his own devices, his father leaving him with a bit of cash while he works and performs other extracurricular activities. One day one his morning run, Charley comes across Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), a horse owner who travels up and down the state racing his various horses. After helping Del change a tire, Charley starts working for Del, learning about horses and the unglamorous world of horse racing on the county fair circuit. In the middle of the night one evening, the enraged husband of one of Ray’s romantic conquests comes to their quaint home in a rage, violently beating Ray and placing him in the hospital after tossing him through a sliding glass window. From this point forward, Lean on Pete compounds its tragedy in moment after moment.
Charley responds to his father’s hospitalization by heading off to work with Del and the horses, hoping to find some distance between himself and the recent tragedy. Upon his return to his hometown, though, Charley is dismayed to learn that an infection has killed his father. While the nurses ask him to wait so they can get a social worker, Charley runs out of the hospital, soon shacking up in the stable next to Lean on Pete, the racehorse he’s formed a special connection with. Charley tries to lose himself in his work. Traveling the state, Charley eventually meets Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a world-weary jockey that warns Charley not to get attached to any of the horses. After a certain race, Del informs Charley that he plans to sell the beloved horse to which Charley winds up stealing Del’s truck and running off with horse that he loves.
The first half of Lean on Pete, while presenting a number of rough moments for Charley, has its own unique personality buoyed by the liveliness that veteran actors Buscemi and Sevigny bring to their roles. Charlie Plummer is also fantastic as this soft-spoken young man entering into a world that is rife with greed and cruelty. It’s these aspects of the world that make the bond that Charley forms with Lean on Pete understandable, as this being represents none of the horrors that Charley witnesses within mankind on daily basis in varying forms. Once Charley and the horse hit the road, the young man wanting to save the racehorse from the rendering plant, the film loses its charm and becomes a series of increasingly bleak and depressing events.
As the trying moments for Charley mount, all the while Charlie Plummer delivers a sturdy, heartbreaking performance, the character has a single reaction to each horrible event – he runs away. At first it’s fairly understandable that a teenager might not want to hang around following something traumatic occurring, but after multiple instances where the character reacts the same way to trauma it becomes rather unaffecting. It just becomes a compounding series of tragic events that lose their emotional impact with each successive event, and Charley’s successive fleeing the aftermath.
There are aspects of Lean on Pete that I’m sure will cause many to connect to its persistent tragedy. I, however, just found it tiresome and bleak. Andrew Haigh isn’t here to tell a happy story and he’ll remind you time and time again that he has no interest in a happy story. But the depressing elements of Lean on Pete are so relentless that it just left me feeling more and more numb, rarely surprised or moved by the next horrific event because you just begin to expect something terrible to happen, and it always happens the way you expect after a certain point.