On the basis of the trailer for Lean on Pete, I was far from sold. Another plucky underdog story about a downtrodden teen turning his life around thanks to a chance encounter that will give him purpose and a calling, with lessons learned along the way? I’ll pass. Thankfully, Lean on Pete is not that film. While its young protagonist does, in fact, learn some lessons, they’re more along the lines of figuring out how to siphon gas or beat up thieving bums with a tire iron than anything of the “just believe in yourself” variety. This is no after-school-special — consider yourselves warned.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if Robert Bresson had directed National Velvet or Vittorio De Sica had helmed The Black Stallion? Me either. But it might look something like writer/director Andrew Haigh’s mournful meditation on the America of the marginalized. The story follows Charley (Charlie Plummer), a 15-year-old whose tail-chasing wastrel of a single dad (Travis Fimmel) has shuffled the boy from town to town, skirting the poverty line in the Pacific Northwest. Charley spends a lot of time running in preparation for a football season that seems increasingly unlikely to come, and it’s on one of these runs that he stumbles across a racetrack and picks up an odd job from gruff horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), a surrogate father figure only slightly more put together than his biological one. While working for Del, Charley becomes fixated on the titular Lean on Pete, a broken-down quarterhorse racing the county fair circuit, one loss away from being sent to the glue factory in Mexico.
While the story may sound predictable up to that point, it doesn’t stay in familiar territory for long. The narrative takes a hard left turn into subject matter that makes neorealism look positively sunny when Charley’s dad meets an untimely end, Pete finally loses that race and the boy inevitably snaps. What follows is one of the most depressing and unremittingly bleak third acts in recent memory, as Charley and Pete set out on a harrowing journey to track down the boy’s only known relative, a quest that leads from tragedy to tragedy in short order.
If Lean on Pete feels like a movie ripped from the lines of a country song, that’s because in a sense it is. Adapted from alt-country singer/songwriter Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name, Haigh’s film has a hauntingly laconic quality that almost normalizes Charley’s suffering. When a vagrant breaks the news to our hero that he is, in fact, homeless, we believe his incredulity — not only because of Plummer’s surprisingly solid performance but because of Haigh’s tightly constructed and expertly paced script. Cinematographer Magnus Jonck’s sun-bleached desert vistas and shadow-soaked cityscapes mirror Charley’s interior landscape, an isolated drifter passing through a cruel and indifferent world almost too large and complex to fathom.
Lean on Pete is a film about the struggle for survival, but it’s never as grandiose as such a theme would suggest. It’s a shockingly intimate and unvarnished examination of very human reactions to tragedy, and it never opts for easy answers or saccharine sentimentality. It’s an uncomfortable watch — more Au Hasard Balthazar than Seabiscuit — but that doesn’t stop us from rooting for Charley every inch of the way. That Haigh pulls this off without pandering to the audience’s sympathies is a distinction that leaves Lean on Pete a cinematic experience as challenging as it is ultimately rewarding. Rated R for language and brief violence.
Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.