Lean on Pete

Directed by Andrew Haigh

Charley (Charlie Plummer) may not be the most desperate of all the troubled young people in the London Film Festival films I saw last year (and there were lots), but he was certainly the most woebegone. He’s a quiet 15-year-old who has suffered from parenting that has been, not exactly bad, but unthinking. His rogueish, rootless father (Travis Fimmel) has carted him round the country following casual jobs, with various women taking half-hearted interest in the lad. Friendless, alone, fetched up in a trailer park beside a racing stables, Charley takes a casual job there. A natural empathy with horses centres on the amiable, ageing nag Lean on Pete, who seems to have a special rapport with the boy, and it look as if Charley has at last has found a world where he fits in, as well as an incipient family substitute with the stables owner (Steve Buscemi) and his partner (Chloe Sevigny).

In so many films we have seen how a dour and irascible bloke with a sympathetic woman have softened towards a needy outsider, but this is Andrew Haigh, who sees things as they realistically are and doesn’t hesitate to show people in all their complexities, and it soon becomes clear that the pair are no sentimental hearts of gold but rooted in their own hard world in which Charley, fond though they are of him, is a mere sideline, and the knackers yard is a sad but rational reality. Buscemi and Sevigny are so very watchable that I felt something of a bereavement when they disappeared.

Unfortunately, though more dramatic, in the second half of the film there’s nothing that quite matches the moving texture of tough lives that’s hooked us up to Charley in the first place. He makes an escape bid for both of them, himself and the horse, crossing an America of unfeeling landscapes, meeting with other marginalised individuals, tracking back to the only time in his life he’s felt properly cared for. It’s never quite sentimental, though maybe Haigh, so good on the interiors and unspectacular spaces of Nottingham and Norfolk is wallowing too much in the novelty of the wide open spaces he’s not dealt with before. He certainly loses us a little bit on the way, with Charley as too much a suffering non-participant observer of the ills of America. I for one never felt convinced by the optimistic ending (how British, by the way, to make a library the warm focus of coming home!), but the fact that I wanted it so much says lots for the investment in Charley that’s been set up.

Seen at London Film Festival, October 2017

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