MIFF Review: Lean On Pete

Celebrated U.K. writer/director Andrew Haigh (Greek Pete, Weekend, 45 Years) makes his U.S. debut with the big screen adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete. The result is his most problematic output, a film that has no real discernible audience and relentlessly crushes its central character with a barrage of horrid circumstances. Frustrating.

Truth be told, Lean On Pete has been sitting on a shelf for quite some time. It was completed in 2017 and debuted in the U.S. in April of this year where, sadly, it bombed on $2.2m on an $8m budget. Not that the box office return should be any measure against the quality of a film, this one has many a supporter critically, but it does attest to one major concern I have with it: who is its audience?

15 year old Charley (Charlie Plummer) lives with reckless, job-to-job father Ray (Travis Fimmel), as they shift from town to town with the warehousing jobs he gets. In his current home, Charley espies a local racetrack nearby where he befriends grizzled racehorse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and, by extension, meets 5 year old aging draughthorse Lean On Pete. It’s not too long before Charley is working as Del’s stable hand, avoiding the crushing realities of his trailer park home with an irresponsible father.

Problems soon arise when Charley learns that, after Lean on Pete fails to win a race, the horse is to be sent to Mexico to be slaughtered. To add more stress to the young boy’s existence, a horrific incident at home only compounds matters, forcing Charley to react in a way that sees him steal his quadrapedal buddy and head for Wyoming.

From here the film descends into a spiral of Lars Von Trier-lite ultra depressing situations from grand theft auto, property theft, breaking and entering, random acts of violence, and a third act opening event that completely disjoints the entire movie. An 119 minute runtime doesn’t help matters and, for all of its duration, the relationship between the boy and the horse never seems fully realised.

Is it a coming of age film? Is it a bleak look at homelessness in America? Is it a morose character study of a teenager dealing with the impossible? Is it an Americana tale of a boy and his horse? Is it a tale of desperation? It’s all of these and none of these – which is what makes it so problematic. I’ve no idea who is meant to watch this film? Too younger skewing for adults, far too profane for younger audiences. Where does Lean On Pete belong?

Haigh has always been an actor’s director and he can certainly illicit great character work from his cast, which he does here, but starting your central protagonist off in a shitty situation and sending him further down the rabbit hole one after the other (with little to no moments of levity or redemption) makes for a very frustrating experience.