I was expecting Old Yeller with a horse, but Lean on Pete was way more than that. Part of SXSW’s Festival Favorites screenings, the film totally draws you into this story of a young man faced with growing up earlier than most of us need to.
Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete not only displays the talents of writer/director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) but is an acting showcase for young Charlie Plummer and a cast of seasoned actors. Cinematography and music also shine.
The story is about Charley (played by Charlie Plummer), who, unknowingly, is searching for the stability and acceptance only a good family can bring. If you are a fan of Blake Snyder’s screenwriting bible Save the Cat!, you’ll recognize this film as following a Golden Fleece genre. Charley is plunked down in a dumpy little house by his sketchy father, played by Travis Fimmel (Ragnar on four seasons of History Channel’s Vikings.), and immediately begins exploring his new world.
Down the street from his new digs, Charley discovers a horse race track. There, he gets a job from a down-on-his-luck horse trainer, played marvelously by Steve Buscemi. As Charley learns the ropes of this small-time horse race and gambling world, he meets the equine Old Yeller, an on-his-last-legs old quarter horse named Lean on Pete.
When Charley finds out Lean on Pete is bound for the slaughterhouse, he makes a desperate move that launches him on his journey. There is no one bad guy who makes Charley’s life unbearable. His antagonist is the challenge of stepping into an adult world at age 16.
The screenplay by Andrew Haigh is worthy of awards. The dialogue is witty and provides foreshadowing which creates a satisfying story.
The dialog between Charley and his father Ray, is often funny. In discussing Ray’s previous girlfriend, apparently one in a long line, Ray defends her saying, “She was pretty smart for a stripper.” Charley retorts, “Yeah, but she couldn’t cook.” It turns out food, and getting it, becomes an important element in the story.
Likewise, Ray’s observation, “All good women have been waitresses at some point,” is born out as the story progresses.
A lot of the backstory is told in dialog, or monologue, as Charley talks to Lean on Pete, but it sounds natural and not contrived.
Charlie Plummer plays Charley. He brings a good deal of experience for so young an actor. As a child, he had a recurring role on Boardwalk Empire. As a teen, he made his debut in the Tribeca award winner King Jack. Last year, he played John Paul Getty, Jr. in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World. That background was necessary preparation for this demanding role as he appears in every scene of Lean on Pete.
Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo) plays the quarter horse owner Del Montgomery, who gives Charley a job. In notes provided by distributor A24, Buscemi commented on his character, “He laments the glory days, but, since he’s getting older, he’s catching the tail end of all that, and he struggles. He’s got a good heart, but he’s not a sentimental guy. He’s had a hard life and that informs everything he does.”
I knew that Buscemi was going to be in the film and looked forward to his performance. I wasn’t disappointed.
Another stand-out performance came from Chloë Sevigny (Kids, Boys Don’t Cry, HBO’s Big Love) as Bonnie, the jockey, and confidant of Buscemi’s character. “Bonnie is salt of the earth, grounded, and maternal,” said Sevigny. “Although you’d expect the only major female in the movie to be more nurturing, she’s more like, ‘whatever, kid—I’ll buy you a soda.’ She doesn’t treat Charley like a little boy, which I thought made for a nice relationship.”
Visuals and Sound
The film was shot in and around Portland, Oregon. The cinematography, by Magnus Joenck, emphasizes the vast emptiness of the American Northwest. At the same time, focusing on Charley, and using reflections to create a feeling of intimacy at times.
The music was good and not overpowering. I stayed through the closing titles, because that’s what a reviewer is supposed to do, and because I was enjoying the song playing over the titles, “The World’s Greatest” by Bonnie Prince Billy.
Lean on Pete, set for release March 31, is an amazing combination of a great story, a skillful screenplay adaptation, and a talented crew and cast. Summing up the story in one sentence: Sometimes you must lose everything to find your home. You will remember this film. Watch the trailer below.
Photos by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24