Writer-director Andrew Haigh is back with Lean on Pete, an adaptation of Willy Vlautin's novel of the same name. After devastating deep dives into a brief connection between two queer twentysomethings in Weekend (2011) and the waning love of a long marriage in 45 Years (2015), Haigh delicately tells the story of an outcast who must run away to hold onto what he loves.
Lean on Pete follows a discreet, reticent fifteen-year-old boy's descent into a life of vast loneliness. Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer), a solitary teenager relatively content with his lackluster life with his trashy, womanizing father (Travis Fimmel), meets horse trainer Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi). Del pays Charley to take care of his horses, which are at the end of their racing careers, so he can run them into the ground for some cash before selling them to a slaughterhouse in Mexico.
Charley, against the advice of jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), grows attached to a horse called Lean on Pete, on deck for the slaughterhouse. But he can't convince the sleazy Del to keep the horse. In protest of losing one of the few things he truly loves, Charley flees across the country with his beloved horse in tow, searching for a family to ease his solitude.
Despite being the film's namesake, the horse fades into the background of a slow, gorgeous, sad portrayal of a quiet boy seeking community. Without family or close friends to love, Charley makes Lean on Pete the lone receptor of his care. After the horse's last race, Charley risks what little he has to set him free. In the desert, he longs for water to quench Lean on Pete's thirst, ignoring the fact that his own lips are as cracked as the ground they walk on.
Haigh paints a picture of Charley that draws your heart to the top of your throat. Plummer, whose jaded performance in All the Money in the World led me to believe he possessed little to no talent, heaves emotional splendor into his shy, breathy portrayal of the film's focal character. Balancing award-worthy performances from Fimmel, Buscemi, and Sevigny, deliberate direction, and a stunning screenplay, Lean on Pete is also a master class in landscape photography, showcasing gaping Western scenery that symbolizes Charley's cavernous existence. The slow pace and sparse tone might leave some a bit disinterested at times, but in the end, Lean on Pete is a meticulous character study with a lot of heart.
Update: As this issue went to press, the local opening of Lean on Pete was postponed from April 27. It is now tentatively set for Friday, May 4.