Though written and directed by Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete belongs to young actor Charlie Plummer from start to finish. Plummer plays Charley, a poverty-stricken, motherless 15-year-old who moves to Portland, Oregon with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), and takes a summer job working with a horse trainer, Del (Steve Buscemi). The boy’s life is built around abandonment and tragedy but also a relentless hunger for affection—human or equine. He’s immediately taken with the most passive of Del’s horses, Lean on Pete, who’s described by his grizzled trainer as “a pussy.” From then on, a child-animal bond is formed where child-adult ones have been consistently broken, the horse’s increasing incompetence to race working as a kind of guarantee against abandoning the boy, because that which can’t run can’t run away.
Though Charley is a teenager, his position is that of a child—the child of a Disney movie even, which Lean on Pete at times suggests. Haigh’s coming-of-age story strips Charley of any sexuality. He’s only interested in his “journey.” There’s no room for carnal emotion in his thirst for kinship, even if there may be an erotic underpinning to the adults’ willingness to let Charley get away with any act of recklessness, as if overcome by the boy’s seraphic-ness, Death of Venice-style. He shoplifts, commits grand theft auto, dines and dashes, and assaults someone with an iron bar and never gets caught or punished. As if made immune by his cherubim prettiness, Charley just keeps on going.
Sex talk always comes from other characters and is promptly deflected. When his father explains to Charley that waitresses make the best lovers, or asks him if he’d want to have sex with dad’s one-night stand, Charley is uncomfortable, if not insulted. He refuses these repetitive invitations for the most toxic and banal of masculinities just as he refuses alcohol for most of the film—in an American West where to be a man seems to mean to always be holding a beer can. Charley is only driven by his heart, at once heavy and empty, pushing him to go forward and far. Instead of beer, he’s interested in grabbing Lean on Pete’s brittle reins, or his ailing father’s hand in a hospital scene that recalls the inability of the main character from Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country—another recent film about masculinity as a depressive enterprise bound for (self-)destruction—to touch the paternal body.
Lean on Pete, adapted by Haigh from Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel, has an urgency for epic things to happen to Charley in the most literal sense; his interiority is always reflected by the vastness, and barrenness, of the landscape traversed. But it’s in Plummer’s androgynous face, an uncanny cross between those of River Phoenix and Matthew Shepard, and in his perennially unkempt blond mane and his breathing, that the real drama is found. Plummer’s performance makes the film’s narrative feel focus-grouped to death and exposes Haigh’s ultimately cartoonish portrait of rural America.
The country that Haigh sets out to capture during Charley’s arduous expedition from Oregon to Wyoming (Laramie, incidentally) stems from the same one-dimensional vision that marred Andrea Arnold’s American Honey—that of the British outsider looking in and only recognizing America’s sheen (it’s in the tacky picture frames, the military references, and the utter lack of solidarity between people). It’s the gap between Charley’s actual American West (barren beyond the landscape) and that of Haigh’s imagination that keeps Lean on Pete from feeling genuine at times. In the hands of a more contemplative director we could have been closer to The 400 Blows than a Disney fable. Only Plummer’s performance expresses the complexity of Charley’s plight with dignity. The actor’s face, at once seamless and coming apart at the seams, ekes out the screams that the overtly aestheticized scenery and the flawlessly tight screenplay could only ever muffle.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 4—15.