Charley Thompson is a waifish highschooler who looks pretty enough to be Elle Fanning's brother, and although his father (Travis Fimmel) is kind, he isn't exactly a model paternal figure. Cue the entrance of a crotchety old horse trainer (Steve Buscemi), a motherly weathered horse jockey (Chloe Sevigny), and a fading racehorse called "Lean on Pete" or just Pete for short. If this sounds like the makings of a coming of age equine story, you'd be right, but Lean on Pete takes a completely different track in its narrative about a boy that's trying to find some permanence in his increasingly unstable life.
Director Andrew Haigh's previous feature 45 Years was another brutally passive and artistically lovely film that deftly handled its characters. As his first American film, it was difficult to see how this English director would accurately portray the Pacific Northwest with accuracy and sensitivity. For four months before the start of filming, Haigh spent time with the book's author Willy Vlautin getting acquainted with the local racetracks and the landscape of Oregon's people, motels, and diners. However, it's not just the time that Haigh spent here that gives authenticity to his work, but his directing style that is able to observe without glamour. These aren't the racetracks we're used to seeing on film, nor the gruff exteriors hiding mallowy hearts of gold. Several times we can't help but expect a sort of Disney turnaround with the fortunes of Charley and his horse, but we rarely see that happen.
Like the horse he befriends, Charley is a runner, and there is a theme of constant change and movement throughout the movie. It's not a long stretch to imagine that Charley wants to provide for Pete what he has been lacking in his own life while at the same time needing the horse to fill that same vacancy. Whether through circumstances or through his choice, Charley is always on the run, and yet constantly searching for a place and for people to stay. Pete and Charley are both passive ciphers, as Charley is able to tell his fears and his hopes to Pete. Rarely elsewhere do we see Charley lay his thoughts to words, even when he is probed about his mother or his past. And although there are several searching glances Charley gives himself in the mirror throughout the movie, he is often someone who is merely reacting to the events around him. However, despite being a life full of hard knocks, the film manages to be hopeful in the light of its realization that life is not all that you want it to be.
Part of this is achieved through the cinematography of Magnus Nordenhoff Jonck, which is able to capture both the natural beauty of Oregon's wilderness while emphasizing the vastness of it. Unlike a western where the breadth of the frame makes the world feel bold and like an adventure to conquer, Charley looks dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the space around him. Plummer handles the role with subtlety, which is why the film is as strong as it is in its silences. Lean on Pete needs that strong anchor to hold the story, which takes a dramatic shift in what could be termed separate acts even while its character merely drifts.
It's vital to have "outsiders" take a look at other cultures and give their viewpoint. Their outlook may be flawed, or it may serve to give new eyes to a situation we have become jaded to. Whatever the case, directors like Haigh are to be valued because above all they try to serve the truth with their work. There's no lack of love in the people that inhabit Lean on Pete, but the tragedy of their lack of action for each other can probably best be summed up by Charley's father's words: "Sorry I can't give you more".