Fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) is frequently observed running through the rural backlands of Portland, Oregon. The sights here are specific yet ubiquitous, in what frequently reminded me of the unsavory outskirts of Chicago’s suburbs. Suburbs like Addison or Elmhurst, those isolating enclaves that seem to wear a mask of authenticity, emulating what developers assume to be cozy and familiar sights of urban life, though ultimately exposing themselves as a hollow shell that bares no resemblance to the real thing. A boy like Charley - living with his father in a rundown, roach-infested home - grows restless in a community like this, and yearns for something, no matter how harsh, to distract his mind from living within the narrowest of means. Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is full of woe, a film that observes the disenfranchised through the lens of a teenage boy. It’s a film that categorically aligns itself with the likes of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, though projects a more mythic, indescribably diaphanous quality.
Not one to pass up an opportunity, Charley assists Del (Steve Buscemi), a horse trainer working at a nearby racetrack with changing a tire. Charley asks for a job, and while initially reticent, Del hires the kid. Haigh, adapting Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name, delicately observes this relationship between Charley and Del as a confrontation of pasts and futures. In Del, Charley sees a bitter though self-sufficient man, a capable crank encumbered by a distrust of the present. Del, we learn, often speaks of the past with a luminous, nostalgic appreciation while effectively dismissing the present. He once had dozens of horses to his name. Now he has but a handful. He speaks of the racetrack of the 80s and 90s with passion, as the good old time. The weight of the past is too heavy for Del to ever abandon.
It’s that allegiance to the past that piques Del’s curiosity in Charley. Here’s a kid with a dedicated work ethic, a singular quality that distinguishes him from other teenagers his age. In one of the film’s most telling sequences, Del reprimands Charley for his lack of manners while eating at a diner, with the outcome serving as a causal reminder of the generational disparity that divides them, along with the misfortunes that Charley has experienced. The paternal component that Charley finds in Del is further detailed with the introduction of Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a jockey working with Del. Bonnie serves as a surrogate maternal presence and attempts to rationalize with Charley as he becomes attached to one of the horses in Del’s stable, Pete, who’s on the cusp of being sold.
Haigh eventually steers away from these racetrack milieus, as Charley proceeds on a journey to Wyoming in search for his only known relative, his aunt Margie (Rachael Perrell Fosket). What follows recalls the moments of Harry Dean Stanton roaming the desert in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, in what seems to be a series of existential meditation on grief and abandonment. Lensed gorgeously by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, the film finds its most gorgeous sequences in the open pastures that lead Charley to Wyoming. There’s a tactile urgency to the images produced here that suggest something more vivid, more or less visually indicating the passage in which Charley transcends childhood and is forced to reckon with adulthood; an adulthood that’s thrust upon the boy in a most unforgiving and punishing way.
Unlike with Haigh’s previous films, Weekend and 45 Years, this is the first time where I found the filmmaker’s penchant for ambiguity to work effectively. More often than not, I’ve found his desire to cloud the clarity of his characters’ emotional tenor as too severe, rendering a lot of his filmmaking to feel too clinical and calculating. But this tale of fraught Americana, disenfranchisement, and abandonment, is not unlike the aforementioned films by Arnold, Reichardt, and Wenders, in that it conveys a salient point on the anomie that has afflicted an entire generation. The generosity that Haigh affords his characters, however minute – whether it be a waitress offering forgiveness or a woman offering ice cream - is one of Lean on Pete’s most compelling gambits: however dire, however close we observe Charley teeter to oblivion, we’re brought back by the warmth of the human spirit.