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    Lean on Pete Hits Its Stride as a Road Movie and Bittersweet Drama

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    Out gay writer/director Andrew Haigh has created an engaging, sensitive, and moving drama in his adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel, Lean on Pete. The film, which opens at the Embarcadero Center Cinema on April 13, tells the story of a Charley (Charlie Plummer), a teenager who cares for the title Quarter Horse one summer.

    Charley is a bright, curious teen living an almost hand-to-mouth existence with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), in Oregon. When Charley runs by a local horse track one day, Del (Steve Buscemi) asks him for some help with his truck. Charley is soon accompanying Del on an overnight trip to race horses, one of them being Lean on Pete.

    The teen, who is, Del observes, “a natural, and not afraid of hard work,” finds meaning and purpose in his work, and continues to assist Del regularly. Charley also meets Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a flinty jockey who tells him, “You can’t get attached to the horse. You can’t think of them as pets. They are here to race.” Of course, Charley hears this message, and ignores it.

    Lean on Pete chronicles Charley’s growing bond with Pete as a situation arises that puts his father in the hospital. And when Del has plans to sell Pete after a poor performance in a claiming race (where horses are sold), Charley decides to take matters into his own hands and save Pete and himself. Haigh depicts these difficult, painful, and arguably poor decisions without judgment. Viewers will be rooting for both Charley, a good kid in a bad spot, and Pete, a beautiful animal who doesn’t deserve the cruel fate that awaits him.

    As the film becomes a road movie, and Charley strikes out in search of his aunt Margy, Lean on Pete hits its stride. Charley, who has no money, uses his quick wits to get by. He siphons gas and tries to steal what he can’t afford. He is sympathetic, even when he behaves badly—as when he tries to walk out on a check at a diner—and Plummer’s remarkable, affecting performance is why.

    The gawky young actor uses his body language to convey his emotions. He is especially adept at trying to be invisible—as when he dines and dashes—but is also very expressive and revealing in a pair of “mirror” scenes, such as one where he adjusts his father’s belt around his hips.

    Plummer exudes innocence and confidence often in the same scene, which is impressive. When he talks with Bonnie about the shocks and drugs Del gives Pete to make him race faster, Charley gets a lesson into how people sometimes behave to survive, and how to work a losing situation to one’s advantage. But the actor really distinguishes himself in a series of monologues he has while walking Pete, talking to his horse about a camping trip where he was scared, or about how his mother left him.

    These are poignant scenes that are all the more emotional because of how Haigh frames Charley and Pete in the vast deserted landscape. The film’s fantastic cinematography is by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, who employs an earth-toned palette that really captures the harsh beauty of the landscape and the hardscrabble life of the characters who inhabit it.

    Lean on Pete shifts gears once again in its homestretch as Charley has a series of interesting encounters with people he meets on his journey. One of the most revealing episodes has him entering a house shared by Dallas (Lewis Pullman) and Mike (Justin Rain), two vets.

    At a dinner that night, Charley confronts an overweight young woman who has been verbally abused by her father all evening. He asks her, with the same innocence and confidence he had when he questioned Bonnie about Pete, why she absorbs all of the hate. Her response is absolutely heartbreaking, but it also captures the same despair Charley feels. It is an extraordinary moment, as moving as a later scene where Charley breaks into a house and quietly observes what it must be like to live as a normal, happy family.

    When Charley later ends up at a homeless shelter and meets Silver (Steve Zahn), an addict who offers him a place to stay for a night, Charley responds with the resourcefulness he developed while also showing how hardened he has become. By the time Lean on Pete ends, Charley is a different person, and viewers will ache at how he adapted to all of the dramatic changes he has endured.

    Haigh may try to jerk tears from viewers throughout this bleak but tender drama, and the filmmaker does tend to telegraph when something bad is about to happen, but Lean on Pete never feels manipulative. Audiences will likely be as attached to this bittersweet film as Charley is to his horse.

    © 2018 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer