3:00 pm EDT, April 5, 2018

‘Lean on Pete’ movie review: A heartbreaking tale of cruelty, empathy, and connection

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is a harrowing character study that captures cruelty and empathy in equal measure, chronicling the distance the human spirit will travel to find connection.

The premise of Andrew Haigh’s newest film is quite simple. A teenager, Charley Thompson, played by up-and-coming star Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World), starts working for a horse trainer and becomes fast friends with the trainer’s horse named “Lean on Pete.”

Onto this rather unassuming story, Haigh grafts an intensely moving tale of human isolation and connection. Based on a novel of the same name, Lean on Pete is a strong adaptation that never feels limited by its source material.

It is a chameleon of a movie, one that functions as a study of one young man’s fight for survival, a striking depiction of the American west, and a fable for the enduring power of friendship and connection.

From the beginning of the film, Charley is a veiled by loneliness, defined by his isolation. He is seen living with his father, a man that is present but frustratingly distant, caring yet dangerously irresponsible.

With his mother out of the picture, Charley is forced into doing much of the heavy lifting for his own care and well-being. As he tries to provide for himself and his father, he ends up working for a horse trainer named Del.

Del, played by Steve Buscemi, introduces Charley to a new world full of horses, race tracks, long car rides through the desert, celebratory beers in run down bars, and lonely nights in roadside motels. These are familiar scenes, but Haigh — keen on telling this story through Charley’s wide and earnest eyes — makes them feel genuine and new.

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Lean on Pete has the look of a classic western, full of beautiful and haunting backdrops of the American west and complete with one young man’s journey with his horse as he attempts to escape his life for a happier future.

Although the film inhabits spaces typically occupied by a traditional western, Lean on Pete eschews the common elements of an adventure story in favor of a journey filled with punishing loss, heartfelt introspection, and a delicate struggle for survival. Lean on Pete vacillates between moments of radical kindness and overwhelming cruelty as Charley searches for more.

Lean on Pete posits that cruelty and empathy exist in the world in equal measure, portraying them as diametric forces that work opposite one another in a magnificent balancing act; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

As Charley crosses through the American west in deep isolation, he encounters people and experiences that both challenge his resiliency and bolster his strength. As the tragedies Charley experiences intensify, so do the acts of empathy he encounters and delivers.

While this balance between cruelty and kindness is easily seen in the events of the film, Haigh also imbues the characters with this very same quality. Every character – including Charley – are shown to complex individuals that act both selflessly and selfishly.

Del cares for Charley, providing him with a steady job and showering him in praise, but also actively deceives and manipulates him. Bonnie (played by Chloe Sevigny) is keen to provide Charley with lessons, skills, and affection, but remains complicit in Del’s manipulation.

Even more minor characters, ones that appear in Charley’s life for a day or even an hour, are shown to have the capacity for malice yet the willingness to care. This duality, one that portrays every character with of generosity and unkindness, is not an easy one to depict but Haigh does so with grace.

In Lean on Pete, Haigh resists the temptation to create villains, but also refuses to make Charley a hero. Charley is shown to be selfish, reckless, and even dangerous. For every move Charley makes, Haigh manages to articulate the character’s motivations, creating a complicated protagonist whose character study is both compelling and devastating.

It does a disservice to a film like Lean on Pete to reduce it to a single thing; however, if there is a single defining characteristic to this movie, it is Charley’s desperate search for connection. This quality, in and of itself, is not particularly difficult to discern. After all, the title of the movie is meant to cue the audience into the meaningful companionship Charley develops with the horse.

Charley is propelled through the story by an insatiable need to find his aunt. He speaks several times of her, of how happy he was when he was with her. As such, her character is shrouded by a thick aura of nostalgia, to the point where the audience is left wondering if she will provide the salvation Charlie so desperately seeks.

This journey or search for connection is a uniting theme between Haigh’s earlier films. His 2011 film Weekend follows the brief yet intense romance between two young men. Complicated by elements of shame and fear, Weekend captures the complicated nuance of human connection between two very different people.

Haigh’s next film 45 Years depicts an elderly married couple dealing with the repercussions of the past as secrets are revealed. Unlike Weekend, 45 Years takes two deeply connected people and tears them apart, revealing the cruelty of deception and how love can leave us blind.

In continuing with this theme of connection, Lean on Pete aligns perfectly with Haigh’s other films. Together, they create an affecting trilogy that center on the effects of solitude and the desire for connection.

With Lean on Pete, Haigh articulates a unique vision of the American west – one that feels distinctly un-American in its refusal to glorify or romanticize the punishing isolation that Charley experiences as he travels across the desert. Haigh also understands that this cruelty does not exist in a vacuum and is often accompanied by an ebb and flow of kindness and empathy.

The most heartbreaking moments in Lean on Pete are those when Charley finds a way to satisfy his desperate need for connection. Chief among these moments are those quiet conversations shared between Charley and Pete; we see Charley open up to the horse in ways he never could with another person. Pete gives Charley someone to lean on, providing the crutch he never had before.

Lean on Pete may be predicated on Charley rescuing a horse, but ultimately it is a truly sublime story of Charley’s own salvation – one that beautifully articulates a complicated dichotomy of life, one that is both punishingly cruel and unexpectedly kind.

Grade: A

‘Lean on Pete’ opens in theaters on April 6, 2018

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