Cinematic Releases: Lean on Pete (2017) - Reviewed

British writer-director Andrew Haigh, best known for his gay themed dramas Greek Pete, Weekend and his short-lived television series Looking, returns to the director’s chair for a decidedly more mainstream but no less compelling drama about broken lives in the American Midwest.  Adapted by Haigh from the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin and set in a small town within Portland, Oregon, Lean on Pete zeroes in on the dysfunctional, unfulfilled teenage life of fifteen year old Charley Thompson (newcomer Charlie Plummer). 

Living with his single father while never staying in one place as daddy wanders from job to job and affair to affair with random women, the quiet Charley stumbles upon an elderly racehorse manager named Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi being his usual self) and comes to care for an aging horse nicknamed Lean on Pete.  After growing attached to the horse as a surrogate friend or brother he never had and learning it will likely be put down due to the animals fading health, the film shifts gears from a dialogue driven interpersonal piece to a cross-country odyssey as Charley runs away from home with the trusty horse by his side.

Released by A24, the fourth theatrical feature of Andrew Haigh is an often heartfelt character study of a lost soul trying to find some sort of familial bond which unfortunately tends to stumble somewhat in the third act.  While many of the threads of Charley’s checkered journey are beset by scenic splendor of the open American frontier landscape photographed beautifully by Magnus Joenck and are edited with nuance by Jonathan Alberts, our troubled hero’s journey tends to meander somewhat.  The first two thirds of the picture are taut and feel crucial to the character’s evolution towards finding his footing where some of the episodes in the third act, however dark and startling, don’t hold much weight in the scheme of things. 

Reportedly key actors such as Thomas Mann were in fact cut from the film in post, but in hindsight you could potentially lose twenty minutes in the third act and it wouldn’t hinder the hero’s journey at all.  That said, the characters are fully fledged with relatable motivations and the earnestness of the picture helps us to forgive the few times it overstays its welcome.  As such, Lean on Pete manages to be an imperfect but generally affecting drama without drifting into sentimental schmaltz and the young Charlie Plummer shows promise as a potential new leading man for the movies.  It could use some additional pruning but like the film’s confused and lost hero, it gets most of the journey right.

- Andrew Kotwicki