REVIEW: Lean on Pete

29 07 2018

As I hit “publish” on this piece, “Lean on Pete,” one of 2018’s best releases, is available to stream on Amazon Prime. You should do so as soon as possible, provided your heart is open to being broken in the most artful and least sensational of ways.

The film stuck with me from the first time I saw it at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. There, in my review for Slashfilm, I wrote:

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is a social realist drama of the highest order, combining the gentle pastoral touch of David Lynch’s The Straight Story with a probing sympathy for individuals on the edge of society recalling the best of the Dardenne brothers. There’s no armchair sociology here, just rich character observation steeped in a spirit of compassion. Haigh never veers into grandstanding “issues movie” territory or troubled youth drama. It’s just the story of an adolescent boy in need of the tiniest bit of permanence and security.

Without the slightest whiff of personification or anthropomorphism, a bond develops between Charley [the teenaged protagonist] and Lean on Pete [the titular horse], unlike the usual cinematic connection between boy and animal. The horse does not exist to teach Charley some lesson about himself or life. He’s an extension of Charley himself, an object onto which he can project some of the greatest aspirations he holds for an uncertain future. When he’s with Lean on Pete, Plummer’s smile is radiant enough to power all the stadium lights at the racetrack, which makes the slow disappearance of that grin even more devastating.”

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing director Andrew Haigh as well back in March for a piece on Crooked Marquee, “Lean on Pete and The Rider: Foreign Visions of a Diminished American West.” I analyzed “Lean on Pete” through the prism of the Western genre, although I did get in some questions about the film in a more general sense that didn’t quite fit into the article. I’ve included those here, in case you’ve seen the film and are curious.

Up until the end of the film when Charley makes the call on a stranger’s iPhone in Wyoming, I didn’t notice a single cell phone in the movie – and really, almost no signposts that signal when Lean on Pete is taking place. Did you intentionally strip the movie of them? I think it makes the film feel really timeless and elemental in a way.

I think I was a little bit. I think there’s two things. First, he probably literally couldn’t afford a phone. The weird idea is that everyone can afford a phone. Most people can, but there are still some people who do not have the money to have a phone and update it and pay as you go. The book is written 7 years ago, written in a different time. I didn’t want this to be a film about 2017. It’s not a film about Trump’s America. I wanted to have a more generalized feeling because this a situation that has been existing for the last 20 years. I did want it to feel like it could be set at any time. I’m not a huge fan of making it clear when something is set, I don’t want you to watch it back in five years’ time and like, “Oh yeah, that’s 2017.” I want it to feel like it could be any time. So it definitely was a conscious decision.

Maybe this is more of a question for Charlie, but I noticed that at key moments, Charley the character doesn’t cry or get emotional – particularly in deaths. Was that his choice, or yours, or already established in the novel?

It was in the novel and a choice we both sort of made – but came about naturally somehow. I think the whole thing is about Charley keeping things hidden. It’s about forcing down his emotional state. If at one point he suddenly broke down, that would be the end of him, he just would never recover from that. He knows he has to get somewhere before he can start to grieve, before he can start to deal with what’s happened to him. He’s got to feel safe before he can feel emotional. That helped me thematically in the movie express what it was about. I wouldn’t have minded if there had been an emotional breakdown, but while we were filming, it didn’t happen. It didn’t feel right, it felt like the character needed to suppress it. Because we were filming so much in order, it made sense as we were going along. In the end, it helps the ending become more effective because finally we get a release as an audience just as Charley gets a release too.

I was really struck by the mirror shots in the film – correct me if I’m wrong, but I think they don’t start appearing until he goes out on the road. Were these ways to close the distance between the novel where there’s a lot more insight into his mind and how he’s self-actualizing?

I love a mirror shot, I can’t help it. All of my films have mirror shots, I’m probably going to overdo it completely. A friend said to me, “Not another mirror shot, please, come on.” But I find them so important because it is the time in our lives when we get to look at ourselves. It really is as simple as that. How you see yourself in a mirror has a fundamental effect on expressing how you’re feeling. I love the fact that he doesn’t really look at himself and tries not to look at himself, and then when he does, he’s faced with someone he doesn’t recognize anymore. He’s in the diner about to steal some food, he just doesn’t recognize what he looks like. And then at the end of the film, he’s done something that he’s going to really, really regret. He looks at himself, and he can barely look at himself. I find that heartbreaking that this kid, for no fault of his own, has been forced to go through such a difficult time when he’s only 16.

Oh, and mark my words, Charlie Plummer is going to be a massive star. A-

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