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'Lean on Pete' offers a bittersweet portrayal of American life

Other | Tuesday 15th May 2018 | David

Though the boy-befriends-horse premise of Andrew Haigh’s tender new drama reads like the basis for a schmaltzy, heart-warming family flick, Lean on Pete isn’t one to take the kids to if you want their innocence to remain intact. This understated coming-of-age film offers a melancholic cross-section of American life as youthful idealism and passion are corroded by rampant exploitation and economic hardship.

Charlie Plummer exudes a shy charm as the 15-year-old Charley wanders the quiet streets of Portland with seemingly little else to do. By chance he comes across Del, a cynical but sporadically kind racehorse-owner played by Steve Buscemi, and lands a job caring for the horses. With an absent mother and a father in hospital, Charley quickly develops an attachment to an ageing horse named Lean on Pete, perhaps seeing a bit of himself in this lonely animal.  

Nonetheless, for the weary Del and his jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), Pete is little more than an investment that’s valuable so long as he wins races, which is only possible these days by employing shady, underhanded tactics. Pete seems doomed to suffer the fate of every racehorse past their prime until Charley steps in with an impulsive rescue plan that almost immediately reveals itself to be naïve and ill-advised.

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A British filmmaker known for low-key, character-driven works like Weekend and 45 Years, Haigh’s intimate direction emphasises the solitary nature of Charley’s journey as he traverses vast rural landscapes with his four-legged companion. In his quest to find somewhere they belong, the increasingly anguished, quietly overwhelmed lead crosses paths with homeless people, immigrant workers and other downtrodden characters who endure various forms of adversity and mistreatment because they have nowhere else to go.

This isn’t your patriotic horseback odyssey of classic westerns but it isn’t a complete downer either. Through the subtle but revelatory details of its delivery, Lean on Pete finds heartfelt humanity in even the meanest of its characters, offering moments of warmth and companionship under the toughest of circumstances. In Haigh’s bittersweet, quietly compassionate film, modern life is shown to be cruel and unfair for humans and horses alike, yet the human spirit still persists in the places where the American Dream seems absent.

Lean on Pete is in UK cinemas now!

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